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The Edison Election

by Gail Robinson, Mar 26, 2001
 

"Team excellence," reads the wall mural outside Jackie Robinson Middle School (MS 320) in Crown Heights. "Students and Teachers Working Together." To underscore the message, pictures of the baseball hero decorate the school, perhaps to exhort the Brooklyn adolescents to follow his path of achievement.

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But, according to statistics, excellence remains a distant ideal at Jackie Robinson. The school has been on the state's Schools Under Registration Review list of low performing schools for years, and 96 percent of its students failed to meet the state standards for math last year. Only 18 percent met the standards for reading, compared to 39 percent citywide.

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That record prompted New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy to select profit-making Edison Schools to operate MS 320 and four other troubled public schools.

That plan now stands at the center of a heated battle over privatization of schools and community control. State law requires that a majority of parents at a public school approve transferring that school to a private operator. Voting at these five schools began last week and will continue until March 30. When the ballots are counted, it appears possible that parents at some or all of the five schools will reject Edison's bid.

Why all the fuss?

While the current controversy involves only about 5,000 students, the stakes are high. Edison, which is the country's largest "education management organization" but still not profitable, is anxious for a toehold in New York and for a splashy success that could lead to its being given control of dozens of schools in New York and throughout the country.

A yes vote by parents would give privatization advocates a chance to put their favorite remedy to work in a high profile setting. But opponents, including some teachers and community groups, need a no vote to try to stamp out what they see as a dangerous trend before it spreads further. To heighten interest, the vote comes as President Bush is calling for the federal government to cut off aid to persistently failing schools -- schools similar to the five that Levy wants to turn over to Edison.

Going Private

In the last several years, there has been an increasing call for alternatives to public schools for parents who can't afford private schools. Charter schools and school vouchers have emerged as ways to provide school choice on a budget (see Charters and Vouchers).

Charters and Vouchers

If you have money, you probably have lots of educational options for your child. Some people see vouchers and charter schools as ways to extend those choices to middle and even low-income youngsters.

Taxpayer-funded "vouchers" would provide parents with a set sum usually less than $3,000 to spend on a public, private or parochial school. Critics assail vouchers for draining money from public schools, and the courts have been leery of spending public money for religious schools in possible violation of the First Amendment. Then too, most private schools cost far more than $3,000 a year, making vouchers of limited use to many families.

As a result, vouchers may well have run out of steam. Voters in California and in Michigan rejected ballot initiatives calling for vouchers in November. While President Bush has supported vouchers, he has avoided using the word. His education package called for something remarkably like a $1,500 voucher, but many observers predict it will be dropped from any final bill.

Now Bush has proposed allowing parents to deduct up to $5,000 of their yearly income for private school. Whatever the ideas pros and cons, it seems aimed at middle class and upper class parents who tend to be pretty satisfied with their public schools.

Meanwhile, charter schools have become a one size fits all reform, with some 500,000 students attending 2,000 charter schools across the country, according to the Center for Education Reform. They are hailed by conservative, free-market advocates in Arizona and by inner city parents seeking more community control and an alternative to often troubled public schools.

On the other side, teachers unions tends to reject them, no doubt because charters dont have to honor collective bargaining agreements or hire licensed teachers. In Arizona, teachers do not even have to be college graduates.

The arguments in the favor of charter schools echo many of those heard in other privatization debates: A private operator, freed from the constraints of bureaucracy and regulation, can provide better services more economically than government agencies. Charter schools receive a license, or charter, from the state or local government to open a new school or take over an existing one. The operators are exempt from school board regulations and collective bargaining agreements. The schools receive a per pupil allocation equal to or somewhat less than the district spends per student, so the bottom line for the school district is that spending remains the same. The verdict, though, is out on whether the companies manage to provide a better education. "Policy makers looking for proof that [charter] schools can best the public school system at improving academic performance would find a patchwork of conflicting evidence," writes Education Week. For example, a 1998 study by Western Michigan University found charter-school students scored lower on tests than their public-school counterparts. But in 2000, the Colorado Department of Education reported that children in charter schools do better on state tests than the average Colorado pupil.

Given Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's penchant for privatization and dismay over the performance of many New York City public schools, it was hardly surprising that he would advocate school choice. Perhaps in response to the mayor's interest, last summer Levy solicited bids from private companies to take over as many as 51 of the city's lowest performing schools. Fourteen companies responded, with Edison submitting plans to operate 12 elementary schools in September 2001 and as many as 45 schools over the next three years.

Levy scaled back the proposal, choosing Edison, but deciding to privatize only five schools: MS 320, Middle School 246 in Flatbush, Intermediate School 111 in Bushwick, Community School 66 in Crotona Park and Public School 161 in Harlem. According to at least one estimate, barely 20 percent of students at these schools read at grade level. Levy also switched the emphasis from elementary schools to middle schools, where problems can be more intractable.

Looking at the school's in question, it would be easy to conclude that any change would be for the better and that Edison would easily win the elections. But that prediction would have ignored power struggles and high passions that such issues can incite in New York.

The community group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and a coalition calling itself People's Coalition to Take Back Our Schools launched a full attack on the plan, charging that parents were shut out of the process. Many of its members question the role of any private corporation in public education.

A key issue is who should control public schools. Noting that parents have been told the schools will be closed if they reject Edison, parent Cecilia McQueen said, "That's not a choice. It's an ultimatum. It's like you don't pay the ticket, you go to jail."

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform which advocates charter schools wrote that the fight is "about who has power over education and who makes progress. Schools have been allowed for too long to act like monarchies whose subjects exist for their convenience."

As parents mulled their choice, both sides sought to influence the vote. Staff members at four schools reportedly leaked parents' phone numbers to Edison opponents who used them to mount a phone campaign featuring a taped message by former Mayor David Dinkins. Edison ran radio advertisements and handed out paraphernalia emblazoned with the company name.

The Mayor and the Chancellor The fight veered away from the children and instead centered on the ups and downs of powerful adults -- including Giuliani, Levy and Edison board chair Benno Schmidt. Joyce Purnick argued in the New York Times, "The standing of the mayor in minority communities is so shaky that he cannot champion his own cause. He is Edison's biggest problem, say elected officials."

That probably won't do the mayor much long-term damage. The brawl's effect on Levy is another matter. At a recent City Council hearing, there was general consensus that "the Board of Education and [Levy] could not have screwed this up more if they'd tried," Elisabeth Franck wrote in the New York Observer . What people seem to differ over is whether Levy's handling of the matter reflects his own ambivalence about turning public schools over to private operators or incompetence, particularly what Purnick termed "his tendency to act without much consultation."

Further complicating the picture -- and inflaming Edison's critics -- are the company's ties to the Giuliani administration and its stated need to make money in disadvantaged communities.

Meanwhile, the other side includes people worried about challenges to the educational status quo, teachers and staff concerned about keeping their jobs, and groups that see this controversy as a chance to score points for themselves and against Giuliani.

The Real Issue

In a better world, the fight would have revolved around whether Edison could provide the 5,000 youngsters in the schools with a better education than they would otherwise get. Here there seems to be enough conflicting evidence for well meaning people to disagree.

While the United Federation of Teachers and some parents say the schools are improving, few would say they're good. "The status quo isn't working, and it hasn't worked for years," says ACORN leader organizer Nathan Smith.

In light of that, why not Edison? "We don't have the political will to put in the money that would provide answers," says John F. Jennings, -director of the Center on Education Policy. Given that, he says, Edison offers "a pretty decent plan."

But Ellen Raider of the Coalition to Take Back Our Schools says New York can do better. "We have excellent schools in our city," she says. "We can replicate those excellent schools."

Edison's Plan

Edison has vowed to make a one-time investment of $2,500 per student in the schools, providing a home computer for every third grader, laptops for teachers and cable television in classrooms, as well as "tractor-trailers" full of books and materials.

"These schools are going to be five of the most watched schools in American," Edison founder Christopher Whittle has said. "Failure is not an option here....Our necks, corporately, personally and otherwise, are on the line."

In the classroom, teachers would use a fairly standard curriculum called Success for All and require a considerable degree of regimentation including uniforms. The school day would run an hour or two longer than the conventional school day.

Mary Procter of the Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. says this approach serves her inner city students well. Edison, she says, operates "a bread and butter school," similar to a good parochial school and has brought test scores up to almost average from woefully below.

A parent who Edison took on a visit to its Washington school told the Daily News, "What I saw was a public school that looked like a private school. Kids behaved. Teachers were enthusiastic." But one parent at a recent ACORN meeting griped that Edison schools are too much "like military academies."

In 1999, Edison announced that its students saw their scores on national tests increase by 5 percent a year. But the numbers are murky about Edison in particular and charter schools in general. A recent Western Michigan University study funded by the National Education Association, a teachers organization, found students at Edison schools performed at levels similar to other nearby schools and do not make the kinds of gains of which Edison has boasted.

Some critics fault education management companies for offering a "cookie cutter" approach that does not allow teachers to adjust to individual students' needs. Again, though, others counter that such a standardized curriculum is precisely what's needed. In fact, the United Federation of Teachers says the public schools and Edison use many of the same methods.

While the New York City school board is trying to get Edison in, some members of the San Francisco school board are trying to revoke the company's charter for an elementary school there. These board members cite the high turnover of teachers since Edison took over a school coincidentally named Edison. And they allege the company has removed troubled or learning disabled students from the school.

Edison supporters, however, counter that test scores at the San Francisco elementary school have risen and that the school is more orderly and has greater resources than when the New York company took it over.

Profit Motive

"The kind of questions we need to ask the company," San Francisco school board president and Edison critic Jill Wynns Wynns told a recent gathering at ACORN headquarters in Brooklyn, "relate to their claims that they can take the same population, do better and make money."

Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University, is chairman of Edison's board, and former Rep. Floyd Flake, the prominent Queens minister, is president of its charter schools division. Its founder Chris Whittle ran Esquire magazine and started Channel 1. Yet the operation of 113 schools and the marquee names have not translated into profits.

According to the New York Times, "for every dollar [Edison] has taken from school districts and charter schools, it has spent $1.36, racking up losses of $197 million since . . . 1992."

The economics of the private operators is dicey at best. On an average payment of $6,500 a student, a company must operate a school and pay staff, as well as returning money to shareholders.

Non-profits, of course, don't have to pay their investors. The Robert Treat Academy in Newark, N.J. gets $7,000 a child, while the Newark schools get $10,000 to $11,000. But Sharon Brennan, the school's board secretary, says her charter school "isn't wanting for anything." Without unionized teachers and a big overhead, she says, "the money goes into the classroom." And Kenneth Campbell, vice president of business development of one private education company, Advantage, says, "We think you can be financially and academically successful at the same time."

Companies like his and Edison claim they can do this by cutting bureaucratic overhead; avoiding collective bargaining agreements that not only dictate salaries but set rules as to what tasks teachers can and cannot do; and purchasing supplies and services more efficiently. Edison's "success depends largely on size," wrote Edward Wyatt in the New York Times, "generating economies of scale in buying textbooks, computers and the like to help lower costs and generate profits."

And so New York, the country's biggest school system, is key. Edison's stock reflects this. Between December, when the deal with the city was announced, and February, the company stock rose from $26.56 a share to $36.75. But then, as the deal ran into difficulties, the stock fell to $21 in early March.

Edison founder Whittle originally wanted to run private schools but was persuaded during Edison's early days that public school takeovers could be more profitable. And if the student body can be altered (as it is alleged some charters have done) so that the students are a bit easier to educate, so much the better for the bottom line.

Even so, "it's very hard for these private companies to come in and make money," Jennings says.

The John Reisenbach School in Harlem is in its second year of offering youngsters a nine and a half hour school day that includes classes in the morning and various projects in the afternoon. Spokesman Ted Faraone says the John Reisenbach Foundation, which funds the school, questions whether for-profit education can work. "You have potentially unlimited costs and capped revenues,' he says. "There is some question as to the viability of for-profit education."

Wall Street's Carl Icahn recently received a charter for a South Bronx school that will open in the fall. Although Icahn says his school, which he hopes to be the first of several, will cuts costs by trimming bureaucracy, he said, "it's not going to be profit-making. It's about making changes and making schools work."

Critics worry that Edison might cut corners to boost profits, scrimping on materials and technological innovations. A collapse of the company, of course, would mean that the city would have to reassert control over the schools or find another operator, something that would almost certainly be disruptive.

Parent Power

Regardless of the merits of Edisons proposal and despite its enormous resources, the company finds itself in a tight situation in New York. Its position must be approved by 51 percent of all parents in a school -- not just voting parents before it can assume control. Thats a tall order when less than 5 percent of parents vote in the school board elections and, according to one parent, only 30 or 40 parents out of several hundred showed up for a recent meeting at the Crotona Park school on the Edison proposal.

It would be comforting to think that the Edison controversy, however it turns out, will heighten public resolve to do something about troubled schools. Given the history of public education, though, the media and public attention is likely to move elsewhere once the hot controversy ends and the big names go elsewhere. When that day comes, the students at Jackie Robinson will again be largely ignored as they strive for excellence.


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