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John D. Tulenko is the producer of "Public Schools, Inc."

"Chris said, 'No cameras,'" Edison's spokesman Adam Tucker informed me when I arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York City. A room full of Wall Street analysts and investors was seated, waiting to hear Edison founder and CEO Chris Whittle's first speech since his company's stock had crashed and burned in what one observer called "a perfect storm of controversy." "But there are print reporters here," I protested. "Chris said 'No cameras,'" the spokesman repeated as Whittle took the podium. I had a bad feeling about where this was going.

I had recently returned from Philadelphia, where I'd watched Edison fight a pitched battle to take over 70 public schools. Unfortunately for Whittle, the opposition came out on top. Edison received only 20 schools. With millions in anticipated revenue suddenly gone, the company's stock went into a tailspin, losing 95 percent of its value in a few short weeks.

Throughout that turbulent spring of 2002, Chris Whittle had declined our requests for interviews, saying he would talk once the dust settled in Philadelphia. By the time the conference at the Intercontinental Hotel came around in July, we still hadn't scheduled anything. I knew we needed Whittle's cooperation to make the film, but I also had a feeling he was about to say something important and that, if we weren't rolling, we'd miss it forever.

Then Whittle announced plans to reorganize the company. I raced back to the spokesman and again asked for permission to film. "Chris said no," he repeated. Not wanting to jeopardize our chances for an interview with Whittle, I decided to wait for the first break and then ask Chris for permission to film. (This was, after all, a private meeting and I was a guest.) Thirty minutes later, as Whittle exchanged small talk with his guests, I politely interrupted and pulled him aside. "Why no cameras?" I asked. Whittle gave me a puzzled look. "I never said no cameras," he replied. Welcome to reporting on Edison.

The incident was just one in a string of difficulties we faced in the short period we'd been following the company. It seemed they were deeply suspicious of reporters. Every request for access required lengthy negotiation with Edison's head of communications. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. My batting average with the opposition, and later with Whittle himself, was considerably higher.

Edison's many opponents recognized an opportunity to have their perspective heard. They allowed me to attend their meetings and shared their charges and complaints against the company. I listened to their side of the story and hoped that Edison would eventually come around. I promised all sides that we would remain impartial.

James B. Stewart's book, Follow the Story, helped me in that regard and gave considerable direction to my reporting. Following Stewart's lead, I organized my research around a series of unanswered questions: What's the nature of the company? Whose interests have come first, the students' or the investors'? What's life like in Edison schools? What's the company's track record? Who is Chris Whittle and what are his true motives? Why has the company failed, for 10 years, to turn a profit? Whatever the answers turned out to be, that's what we would report.

In September, some months after we started production, Chris Whittle consented to a series of interviews and answered all the questions we asked save one -- he refused to release budgets for individual schools. But getting Whittle to talk would turn out to be the least of our problems. As I was about to discover, getting teachers to talk would be harder still. My experience in Chester was typical.

When we first approached Edison about filming in Chester, Penn., it was not the least bit interested and tried to dissuade us from coming. Things had not gone well there for the company and, at the time, rumors were flying that Whittle's days in the schools were numbered. We went ahead and approached Chester anyway. If Edison wouldn't talk, I figured, others surely would.

After visiting numerous schools, we decided to focus on Wetherill Elementary, where Principal Paul Loper seemed eager for me to meet the staff. The staff, however, did not want to meet me. As I would soon learn, Chester was a toxic environment -- the problem was that no one knew who was in charge. Chester's old school bureaucracy had been left in place and was vying for power with the company's officials. Rumors were everywhere about impending layoffs, and teachers feared reprisals for speaking up. Understandably, everyone thought it best to keep their heads low. Teachers Glenda Brakman and Leslie Alderfer were exceptions. Both agreed to be interviewed even though it represented a considerable professional risk.

In almost every other Edison school we visited, however, we encountered the same toxic environment that made it a struggle to find people willing to speak.

While we eventually managed to break through the teachers' wall of silence, I had less luck with venture capitalists. Seeking an insider's perspective on Whittle and his business decisions, we sought interviews with major investors who financed the company in the mid-1990s. Most refused our calls and none would go on the record.

Luckily, a source led me to Steven Wilson, a senior fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who along with Thomas Toch, formerly of U.S. News & World Report, shed light on the business side of the story. Wilson was able to put the company (and its seemingly crazy deals) in perspective. Toch, who has been following Whittle for years, shared his understanding of the internal dynamics of the company.

Despite the many difficulties we faced finding knowledgeable people willing to talk, I was able to answer most of the questions I started with. I learned that Edison appears to have acted in good faith with regard to the children in the company's care. Most of its schools are an improvement over what came before. And rather than making money off the backs of kids, Whittle (to date) has been more interested in showering schools with resources, paid for at a significant loss by the investing public. That's where the pain has been felt, not in the classrooms.

The company that we reported on, however, is gone. Now Edison is operating in a different world. No longer flush with hundreds of millions of dollars, its behavior toward its clients may change. And if Edison becomes a private company again, as it plans, it will be much harder to scrutinize its operation. We'll have to trust the market to keep Edison in check: Cutting corners to make a profit will not generate the kind of client satisfaction Edison will need to make it over the long haul.

Chasing Edison and Whittle was both frustrating and rewarding. He's someone who wants to do good and do well, and he's stayed at it when many others would have thrown in the towel. He spent at least six hours talking with us. To me, that was generous, but one of his critics interpreted Whittle's behavior differently: "He should be running the company, not talking to reporters."

During the year of reporting, I met people who insisted that Whittle was (choose one) the devil incarnate or public education's savior. The real Whittle, and the portrait that emerges in "Public Schools Inc.," is far more complex and, I hope, far more interesting.

 

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published july 3, 2003

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