TOPICS > Education

Dollars and Scholars

April 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: 400 parents and teachers packed a raucous school board meeting in San Francisco recently where the fate of a public school being run by a private corporation hung in the balance.

SPOKESMAN: Please do not abandon Edison. Please support the Charter in defense of San Francisco students. Thank you. (Cheers and applause)

SPENCER MICHELS: The elementary school, Edison Charter Academy, has been managed by Edison schools, incorporated, for the past three years under a contract with the local public school district. But Edison Charter has provoked a major ideological and political battle in San Francisco over whether a privately run public school can work. Edison Charter Academy is one of 113 public schools in 44 states run by Edison, which eventually hopes to make a profit from them.

TEACHER: La familia.

STUDENTS: La familia.

SPENCER MICHELS: The concept of privately run public schools has provoked serious controversy. Edison schools’ stated aim is to raise student achievement, especially in poor areas, through a comprehensive school design that includes each student past the second grade getting a computer to take home.

CHRIS WHITTLE, CEO, Edison Schools: Our whole point is to spend more.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chris Whittle, who ran a controversial commercial news service for public schools called Channel One, founded Edison a decade ago, and claims it is raising test scores and improving schools in places where traditional schools have failed.

CHRIS WHITTLE: What we do that’s different is we provide a whole school, meaning we go… we have spent a decade thinking about how to do great schools, with a lot of research and a lot of thoughtful people; and here it is as an entire entity, and why don’t you take a look at it and see if it works great for children? And if it works great for children, isn’t that the point?

TEACHER: What are we studying for this month?

SPENCER MICHELS: But not everyone thinks Edison works great. The American Federation of Teachers calls Edison’s track record mediocre, and cites a study that shows Edison students only occasionally perform better than students in comparable public schools.

TEACHER: Let’s find out about this little boy.

SPENCER MICHELS: Company says that study was biased, and points to schools like Edison Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto, California, where they say students have dramatically improved test scores. A kindergarten-through-third- grade school in a predominantly Hispanic and African American community, Brentwood follows the Edison design. That includes a highly formatted reading program called Success for All, developed at Johns Hopkins University, and available to all schools. ( Students reciting phonetics ) every child in every class spends the first hour and a half in a rigorous, prescribed reading session. But highly structured reading lessons are only one part of what makes Edison unique, according to principal Martha Navarrete.

MARTHA NAVARRETE, Principal: In an Edison school, what we’re looking at is every piece of what happens to a student during the day– the reading, the math, the writing, the language arts, the drama, the music, the P.E.– looking at a whole child and saying, "what is it that we need to do in a system to ensure that this child is successful?"

TEACHER: So what I want everyone to do is take a look up there.

SPENCER MICHELS: Edison gets the math program all its schools use from the University of Chicago, and teacher Kari Loya uses an action-packed lesson plan that includes props like dominoes to hold his students’ attention.

KARI LOYA: What did we do to go from this number of dots to this number of dots? Think. Did we add, subtract, multiply, divide? Okay, share… Whisper to your partner, quickly. What did you come up with? What do we have to do?

STUDENT: Subtract.

KARI LOYA: You’re right, we subtracted.

SPENCER MICHELS: Edison schools start early; for older children, the school day is eight hours long. The school year is four to five weeks longer than most other schools. Teachers often work on Saturday.

TEACHER: You are not to tab your books.

SPENCER MICHELS: Edison faculty members get two preparation periods a day, and take part in house meetings.

TEACHER: We put the math lesson, and then next to it, put the math game. TEACHER: Let’s come in quickly and quietly and show Miss Parker you’re all set for music.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like the teachers, the students follow rules. They wear white tops and blue pants. They travel in mostly straight lines, and they keep their voices mostly low. Before Edison took over, many of these schools had been noisy and unruly. Now, self-discipline is part of the curriculum.

MARTHA NAVARRETE: Just in the year and a half that I’ve been here, I’ve watched a complete turnaround in terms of lineup, behavior– it’s pretty amazing. And I do attribute that to the design and what we do up front as a system.

SPENCER MICHELS: In two years, Edison Brentwood moved from the among poorest performing schools to the top in low-income areas. Still, Brentwood scored in the bottom 30% of all schools in California. In East Palo Alto and in many of its other locations, Edison schools have received strong community support. But San Francisco’s single Edison school is the center of a political storm. A newly elected pro-teacher school board vowed to revoke the agreement with Edison that was signed by a previous administration. School board President Jill Wynns:

JILL WYNNS: It’s something that I… I think is wrong. I don’t… I don’t want public money going to people who will profit, more or less, based on the educational decisions that they make. And I don’t think that school managers who have above them the imperative to enrich stockholders are going to be able, either now or in the long run, to make good objective decisions.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Teachers’ Union led the anti-Edison forces. Union activist Jeremiah Jefferies taught at San Francisco’s Edison Charter Academy its first year, and didn’t like it.

JEREMIAH JEFFERIES, Former Edison Teacher: A lot of teachers felt uncomfortable even speaking up about what they felt or how they felt, because the conditions were really bad for teachers their first year. >>

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you mean?

JEREMIAH JEFFERIES: Long hours, Saturday professional development; everybody in the building seemed to be teaching reading. So it wasn’t people who were trained.

SPENCER MICHELS: The strict teaching format in Edison schools, like the Success for All Reading program, didn’t impress Jefferies.

JEREMIAH JEFFERIES: You’re sort of given a script, and so you’re told what you’re supposed to say, how you’re supposed to ask questions, so you’re really given no freedom, to actually teach.

SPENCER MICHELS: If the script works though…

JEREMIAH JEFFERIES: The script doesn’t work.

SPENCER MICHELS: It doesn’t work?

JEREMIAH JEFFERIES: It doesn’t work. We… In fact, teachers affectionately called it success for some or success for none, because it really… It really… It tries to have this attitude of sort of one-size-fits-all, but it’s just not the case.

SPENCER MICHELS: Teacher Kari Loya counters that there is flexibility in Edison’s methods.

KARI LOYA: There is so much that is spelled out for you, which is wonderful, a wonderful resource, but at the same time, for newer teachers, it can be overwhelming, and you need time to just grow into it. And you figure out what you can kind of make your own, where you can modify, and also what you need to really stick to, what is important.

SPOKESPERSON: In your agenda, on page one…

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco’s complaints went beyond teaching techniques. School district officials presented a list of charges against Edison, including an allegation that the company counseled low-income African Americans who would not perform well on standardized tests to attend school elsewhere. School board member Mark Sanchez taught at Edison four years ago, before its scores started improving.

MARK SANCHEZ, San Francisco School Board: The more challenging kids who were there when I was there have been counseled out of the school. They came in saying "we can do what you can’t do with this school and this population," and now they’re changing the population and they’re saying, "we’re doing better."

SPENCER MICHELS: Edison denies changing the demographics. The number of African American students is about the same, although as the school grew, their percentage did drop. Still, 84% of the school is black or Hispanic– nearly the same as before.

STUDENT: We predict that…

SPENCER MICHELS: Lisa Rios isn’t interested in ideology or the public/private debate. She put her daughter, Jasmine, there because she liked the school, and now she’s fearful the school board will kick Edison out.

LISA RIOS: My child is learning. If she wasn’t learning, then I wouldn’t be sitting here and, you know, standing up for the school, because I think the school’s doing really well, or I would take her out and put her into a different school. She’s happy. She’s sad, you know, that the whole… That they might be closing the school.

(Speaking Spanish)

SPENCER MICHELS: More than three- fourths of the parents at Edison Academy– many of those at the school board meeting– signed a petition asking the board not to cancel its contract with Edison. Venture capitalist Chris Kaegi voiced his own concerns.

CHRIS KAEGI: Why aren’t we working to fix the other schools in the district that actually aren’t working? (Cheers and applause) I am embarrassed to admit that we are here today because exacting political revenge and advancing ideological agendas…

SPOKESPERSON: Your 30 seconds…

CHRIS KAEGI: …Are more important in the minds of our elected officials than the welfare of our children and the multitude of other pressing issues facing the district. I just don’t get it.

CHRIS WHITTLE: I think it’s pure politics, and I think it’s politics in front of children. This is an outrage! I mean, there’s no other word to call this. This is an outrage, and people know that, and that’s why there’s so much support for what’s going on at this school.

SPOKESMAN: Reconsider your decision tonight, and to listen to the parents once again.

SPENCER MICHELS: In San Francisco, the debate over Edison’s worth may already be over. The school board gave Edison until July to remedy alleged deficiencies or lose its contract. Whittle’s company intends to appeal to the state school board and to the courts, fearing that its first charter revocation could slow the firm’s momentum in the rest of the country.

JIM LEHRER: Edison suffered a setback in New York City last week. It had proposed taking over five public schools there, but parents in four of them rejected that idea.