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New York City
July 2001

Edison Schools Enter NYC Market
by Sarah Elzas

Chris Whittle is not unfamiliar with controversy over the role of commercial interests in education. As the President and CEO of Edison Schools, the for-profit management company that he says will be running 139 schools across the country this fall, and previously, as the founder of Channel One, a news service for schools, he has been the center  of a lot of the criticism. However, he says that people focus too much on the funding of Edison, and not enough on what he is doing for academic achievement.

Edison is “the first national network of schools,” said Whittle recently over the phone. “As I looked at public education, what stunned me was how it was so fragmented,” he explained, pointing out that there are about 15,000 school systems across the country with an average of 3,000 students per system. “Small [school] districts are unable to build state-of-the-art systems,” he said. Edison, because of its reach, can provide for extensive research and development.

It was this infrastructure that attracted Eugene Wade, the CEO of LearnNow, another  management company, to a recent merger with Edison. “A lot of LearnNow money was going into infrastructure that Edison has already,” said Wade, now Executive Vice President of Edison. Edison, for its part, acquired a competitor (“They were destined to be No. 2 in the field,” said Whittle) as well as an entry into the tough, but crucial New York City school market—LearnNow will open the Harriet Tubman School this fall in the Bronx. This comes on the heels of Edison’s defeat in a parental vote against its taking over five failing NYC public schools earlier this year.

Edison runs two kinds of schools, charter and contract schools. Charter schools are independent, startup schools, whereas contract schools are existing schools taken over from a board of education.

Acorn, the community organizing group that  mounted the most opposition, objected to the exclusive deal between the Board of Education and Edison. “Whether or not these schools wanted [to become] charter, they had no choice,” said Bertha Lewis, Executive Director of Acorn. She would have liked to see Edison apply for a charter “just like everyone else”—just like LearnNow had done with Harriet Tubman. “LearnNow did get into the neighborhoods,” said Lewis.

“What’s fascinating about New York’s [charter] law is that it puts parents in the driver’s seat,” said Wade. “The best school district in the country works well because the ultimate consumer—the parent—is involved.” Thus, it is to them that these management companies need to show results.

According to Wade and Whittle, results are achieved by streamlining spending. Even though Edison receives the same amount  of money from the district per child as other public  or charter schools, Edison can provide extras such as a computer to each student and more class time, because, according to Wade,  “We spend money differently.” Administration is on a national level and enables us to “put more money into the classroom because of efficiencies.”

But still, “to do something like we’re doing requires an enormous amount of money,” explained Whittle. It is this need for large amounts of start-up money that turned both Whittle and Wade to the for-profit world. “We could not have raised that amount philanthropically,” said Whittle of the half billion dollars the company has raised in ten years. Wade, who worked as a non-profit sector consultant before founding LearnNow, agrees. He explained the improbability of getting the “substantial investments up front,” to start a school in the South Bronx, such as Harriet Tubman.

For investors, the payback is student achievement. Edison’s curriculum regularly tests students. According to Wade, tests are a way to keep everyone on the same plane. “Without them, what have you got?” he asked. “You have everyone walking around being subjective saying ‘we’re doing good.’”

While Edison’s own reports show the company has been successful in raising scores throughout the country, many opponents question the numbers. Whittle himself admits that there are “a handful” of schools with which he is not happy, but he attributes this to start-up years and occasional poor leadership. The best schools have good, integrated leadership; a bad principal could be the downfall of a good school, he explained. “A good principal does not guarantee a good school,” he said. “But if you have a bad principal, it guarantees a bad school.”

While attempting to create high-performing schools, Edison and LearnNow also have a goal of reforming public education. “We are forcing [school districts] to reexamine what they are doing,” said Wade. In theory, high achieving Edison schools will create competition for the students in the public school district. “The idea is that the public schools will follow.”

Lewis says that this theory “starts with the wrong premise—that they will provide a good education.” A vehement skeptics of Edison’s record, Lewis points out that New York City already has models of good schools—Hunter, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science. “The competition is already there,” she said. But there are still failing schools elsewhere.

If this theory of competition is indeed true, how do Whittle and Wade feel about creating a situation that will eventually make their schools (and jobs) unnecessary? “We are a long ways away from running ourselves out of business,” said Wade. “We’ve got a crisis of underachievement. Hopefully, we’ll be a part of the process of reforming education.”

Whittle sees a future in which “four or five very significant fortune 500 class entities” will be managing 20-25 percent of the students in the country. “No one is going to have anywhere near 100 percent, and I don’t think it would be good,” said Whittle.

The merger with LearnNow will impact the company on the corporate level, according to Wade, and will not affect the day-to-day lives of the students in LearnNow schools, including Harriet Tubman, which will continue to have a LearnNow curriculum (different from Edison’s Success for All and Chicago Math).

Ultimately, raising student performance is a long and arduous job. “They didn’t get the way they are in one year,” said Whittle of the five schools that the Board of Education is now in charge of reforming. “What’s going to change these schools is tremendous, continuous attention to these schools. Some things take 10, 15, 20 years to do and you have to stay focused.” It is this “continuos urgency” that, according to Whittle,  the private sector does well.


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
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