Reading, Writing, and Revenue

The Edison Project's formula is simple: Take a Minneapolis public school, add some entrepreneurial savvy, and watch the profits roll in. Trouble is, it doesn't add up.

 

In a meeting room at PPL's offices just south of downtown Minneapolis, John Hartwell and Cathy Nissen are seated at a large round table. Nissen holds a folder full of papers documenting the last year at Edison, including a report she's preparing for the PPL board. Among the papers is a PPL newsletter titled "First year at Edison/PPL Elementary School championed by all." Hartwell, a retired businessman, donates 20 hours each week to act as PPL's treasurer and chair the group's education committee. Nissen is the PPL staffer who oversees the school for the organization.

For years, Hartwell explains, PPL has focused on efforts to help "hard-to-employ people" find jobs and housing. "Why are they hard to employ?" he asks. "Because their math and reading skills are around the fourth-grade level. So you start to ask yourself: 'Why don't we do something about it at the beginning, before these people become so hard to employ?'" Nissen adds that the group's board was eager to work with Edison because of its strong curriculum and reports of high parent satisfaction.

Nissen and Hartwell say PPL is more than pleased with the company. "What we found most encouraging was the positive reports coming from parents," Nissen says, noting that in a local survey conducted by Edison this summer, parents rated the school an 8.5 on a 10-point scale.

On the topic of the teachers' complaints, Hartwell grows agitated. "To spend grown-up time sitting here talking about this dirt--it just absolutely infuriates me," he says. "When PPL is out busting its tail in the inner city trying to make it a better place to live, I can't believe we're sitting here talking about all this." A former mattress-company CEO, Hartwell is quick to offer a business analogy. "If you're trying to find out about a company and you ask employees who are no longer there, you're not going to get a fair read on the company," he says. "You're going to get a negative.

"The world doesn't like Edison because it's competition, and the union doesn't like them because they have a monopoly," he adds. "Our schools are failing. Why do we have all this debate about anybody that's trying to do something new? It's the for-profit business, isn't it? If this wasn't a for-profit company, there wouldn't be an issue."

Hartwell rises and circles the table. "If you want to talk about taxpayers' dollars," he says, vigorously pointing at the parent survey, "you show me a public school that even does this. That's the problem: The public school system is set up to serve the teachers and the unions--not the parents and the students. Well, I'll tell you something: This country was built on the profit motive. So if profit incents people, makes them work harder to put together a better school, let Edison keep their profit. Big deal."

 

Edison Schools Inc. is the creation of entrepreneur Chris Whittle, who has been praised as a business visionary and denounced as a two-bit huckster. In the late 1980s, after he and a partner turned around the floundering Esquire magazine, Whittle launched his most controversial project to date: Channel One, which provided schools across the nation with a news program, along with the TV equipment to show it. All Whittle wanted in return was a promise that students would watch the twelve-minute program's two minutes of commercials.

To get Channel One started, Whittle got Time Inc. to invest $185 million and Philips Electronics to pitch in $175 million. By 1994 financial strains forced Whittle to sell the business. Both Time and Philips reportedly wrote off their entire investments. At present Channel One, managed by a different company, is watched by roughly 8 million students in 12,000 schools across the nation.

The idea for the Edison schools came to Whittle while he was working on the Channel One project in 1991. In 1992 he convinced Benno C. Schmidt, then president of Yale University, to lead the firm, marking a critical step in establishing Edison's credibility. An all-star group of business executives, scholars, educators, and journalists was assembled to create the Edison Design.

Since then Whittle's company has seen exponential growth. It has raised $232 million in private capital to fuel an expansion to 77 schools and 37,000 students. In addition to Minneapolis, the firm runs two schools in Duluth; a group of Roseville parents have plans to open an Edison charter in the fall of 2000.

The company's progress has not come without controversy. In Colorado Springs, Edison took over an elementary school in 1996; by the end of that school year more than one-quarter of the teachers had left, many citing poor discipline, inadequate special-education programs, and unresponsive management.

In Miami an elementary school Edison has run since 1996 drew front-page headlines this year when parents charged that one of its teachers had routinely beaten students with a stick. Teachers, meanwhile, alleged that the company skimped on support, cut language instruction, and provided needed supplies only when district auditors came around. More than one-third of the Miami school's teachers, and the principal, asked for transfers during the first year.

Elsewhere the controversies have been less sensational. In Sherman, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, Edison schools have attracted media scrutiny for failing to significantly improve student test scores. And Duluth public-school administrators have complained that the company's charter school has siphoned precious tax money away from the district, while teachers threatened to strike in part over the district's support for Edison.

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