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Winston Brooks is the superintendent of the Wichita public school system. In this interview, he describes the Wichita school board's decision to revoke Edison's contract. He says that although the schools Edison ran in Wichita showed improvement in test scores, the gains were comparable to non-Edison schools in the district. Brooks tells FRONTLINE that the decision to terminate Edison "was basically made on the fact that we think we can do it cheaper and we can do it just as well, if not better." He says that they will probably keep some components of the Edison model in the school system, but by severing its relationship with the company, the district expects to save a half a million dollars per year. This interview was conducted on Dec. 13, 2002.

One of the claims that Chris Whittle made and Edison made when they first came in here is that We can educate kids better, and that's not happened here. They've not been able to do that.

I want to cover a whole bunch of different things, but start with Chris Whittle himself. Tell me about your meetings with Chris Whittle.

I've met with him several times. Chris Whittle's a great guy. He's very passionate, very convincing, very hospitable. He's a wonderful person. I think he's very passionate about what he's trying to do with public education. So, a great guy. ...

When you became superintendent, what was your attitude about having Edison [in] your district?

By that time, they were pretty much a part of the district. I saw them as an entity that was adding some value to our district, although by that time, we had also experienced a number of problems, hills, obstacles to pop over. But I thought they were OK. I mean, they were there; they were in place. They were pretty stable by that time. So that was not something that I worried a lot about when I became superintendent.

It occurred to me that [it's] possible, as a new superintendent, it'd be a kind of a point of pride [to say], "Hey, we don't need Edison. We can educate our own kids." Did that go through your head?

No. No. Never. In fact, that's never been in my head. I really believed -- and I've stated many, many times -- that Edison has brought value to our district. It's one spoke of many that has, I think, caused our district to experience a pretty dramatic increase in student achievement. I think the privatization, quite frankly, gave our staff or our own district schools the motivation to say, "By golly, we can do better than that." [It] has been a very positive thing.

Edison has [been] a spur, a goad, to the rest of the district? Is that what you [are saying]?

... I think it was, actually. Quite frankly, at the same time we brought Edison in, my predecessor established what initially we called Wichita look-a-like schools -- we now call them Wichita Initiative Schools -- and said, "Let's just see. Let's have a control group here to see whether or not we can do it just as well using the same components that they use. Can we do it just as well?" I think that was brilliant of [him] at that time.

What did you learn from that?

We learned that we can do it just as well, [and] cheaper. First of all, [we] did it just as well. Our test data showed this whole district has made improvement. One of the things that Edison likes to claim to is that their schools have made some huge gains in the student achievement area. In fact, that's true, at least in the two schools just that we've had this year. But our whole district has done a fantastic job.

When you look at the growth that our district schools have made, compared to the growth that the Edison schools have made, they're not any more significant. One of the claims that Chris Whittle made and Edison made when they first came in here is that "We can educate kids better," and that's not happened here. They've not been able to do that.

As far as cheaper's concerned ... they don't educate the average student here. They have three elementary schools and one middle school. The average cost that we gave them included K-12. [It] takes a lot more money to educate a high school youngster than it does to educate an elementary youngster. So we think just recently when we [terminated] the contract with Dodge and Jardine, we think we'll save a half million dollars a year, just for people cost.

Why did you terminate the contract? You said Edison was a spoke, a part of the system. Yet, you just cut them off at the knees.

You've got to keep in mind that, a year ago, we reduced the contract from four schools to two schools. Then, just the last couple of weeks, we've actually terminated the contract, but for completely different reasons.

This most recent decision was basically made on the fact that we think we can do it cheaper and we can do it just as well, if not better. We're in tough financial times here in the state of Kansas, and this district is facing some really tough financial times. We need to look under every stone we have to see where we can save money. We really do believe that we can educate just as well, maybe better, and save a half million dollars a year.

So, was Edison failing in the two schools that you just terminated?

No, I don't think they were failing in the two schools we just terminated.

Were they succeeding?

I think they were succeeding. I don't think they were succeeding any better than many of the other schools that we have in the districts with similar demographics.

... What have you learned by doing Edison without Edison [at the Wichita Initiative Schools]?

I guess we've learned we don't need a private company to tell us how to do it. I think what they brought to us seven years ago was a concept. They did bring some practices to us. We weren't doing an extended school year and an extended school day in this district until they came. I think we've learned that extended school day pays off. ... They brought curriculum programs to us, like Success for All. We weren't using Success for All reading until Edison came to town. We now use it in eight or nine of our schools.

So we have learned some things from Edison. The competition was healthy, in my opinion. I think they've run their course in our district. I think, like a lot of other things in education, there's a tendency that things come in, it runs its course and then it expires.

The two schools you just terminated, Dodge and Jardine -- will you keep the Edison model there, even though Edison itself will not be running the schools?

We've not determined that for sure. There's certainly been some expression of that desire by the parents at Dodge, that we keep certain components of it. What we haven't figured out yet is exactly what components.

When we reduced the contract a year ago at Ingalls and at Isely, we heard from parents then that they really wanted to keep the uniforms. They really wanted an extended school day. They wanted an extended school year. They wanted the technology. I suspect we're going to hear some of that same desire from the parents at Dodge and perhaps at Jardine. To that extent, as we have done at Ingalls and Isely, we will continue doing many of those things. So we need to really listen to the parents and see what it is they want to do or not.

So we might come back a year from now and find several of your schools looking like Edison schools, even though Edison will be long gone?

Possibly. You know, first impressions -- what you see when you walk through a school and what really is there are two different things sometimes. I think one of the things that we have offered the schools that we take back is a lot more support. It just makes sense. When you're a part of a larger system, you can count on support from central office, you can count on support from that whole system. One of the things that I think has been a little bit problematic for Edison is trying to manage schools across the country, having a nationwide system of schools managed out of one central office. I mean, they are a bureaucracy like everybody else is a bureaucracy. ...

Some of your teachers who were at Ingalls and then transferred ... said that was a problem for them. They, in a sense, had to go to New York to get permission to do things. Is that part of Edison's problem?

I think that, plus Edison -- and I believe this is also true in other areas that I know they're in, like Colorado Springs and Kansas City and other places -- where the staff members at an Edison school don't know who they belong to. They'd like to continue belonging to the system of schools that they're located in, that they also know that there's other system called Edison that they're part of. They really don't know who they belong to.

I know we went through some stages here where we would be offering district staff development on, let's say, children of poverty. ... There'd be Edison teachers who would say, "Well, we want to attend those in-services," and we'd say, "Well, you can't. And the reason you can't is because we've already paid Edison in the formula for in-service activities. If you want to pay us for that, we'd be more than happy to have you here." So the staff members who feel very much a part of this community oftentimes can't participate in activities that are going on in the district, because of they're always in between. [Do] they belong to Edison, or do they belong to the local district?

One of your board members, fairly critical of Edison, said they were a money-eating machine; [that] their attitude was, "Once they got us as a client, they were immediately looking for the next client, and not paying attention to us in Wichita." Is that right?

I don't know that I would characterize them as a "money-eating machine." I think that perhaps, as any private industry or private company would do, they became a lot more interested in expansion than taking care of things that they already had. You could go to conferences where they were presenting, and they rarely talked about the quality that they had developed in the schools that were already there. They always talked about how they were expanding. "We have 85 schools." Or, "We have 85,000 students now, instead of 40,000." That was always their marketing piece.

I think part of their demise here locally -- and quite frankly, I think their demise in every single school that they started off originally with -- ... is that common concern that they went out and got more concerned about expansion than they were concerned about things at home.

What did they do to save money here? ... What did Edison do here that you could say, "Well, they kind of cut costs?"

... I think the main way that they make their money is that they negotiate contracts where they're able to get the average per pupil expenditure in a district, which in a district, that includes K- 12. Then they primarily offer services only in elementary schools.

And elementary schools are cheaper to run?

Elementary schools are much cheaper. But the average cost of running an elementary school in this district is about $2400, and the average pupil per expenditure in this district is about $3800. So theoretically, you could maybe assume they were making $1400 per pupil.

Did Edison make money in Wichita?

Well, I don't know. That's always really hard to find out, whether or not they're making money or not. They have always claimed they're losing money; if not losing money here, they certainly said that the payment per pupil that they received here in Wichita was the lowest that they have anywhere else in the country. So they said they'd lost money here, and I don't have any reason to believe that they're not telling the truth about that.

Why would they say that? I mean, you said the dollars are in their favor. They're educating elementary school kids, which are cheaper to teach, yet they're getting the average per pupil, so they conceivably could be making money. Would they have any reason to say they lost money?

Perhaps all the technology that they purchased. They did actually do some capital improvements on the two buildings that we had given to them. They made a huge technology investment. By the time you do all of that and also try to hire teachers and buy supplies and those kinds of things, it could be [the reason].

But my hunch, if they're saying they're losing money here, is that they have developed this bureaucracy themselves. You see, when they bring a supervisor into supervise one of their schools, they have to fly them here. They have to put them up in a hotel over here. They have to buy their food here. When you have a nationwide system of schools, there are some expenses that go along with operating that system that we don't have here just as a local system.

Do you think the Edison formula is a viable formula -- a large national chain of for-profit schools? Can it be successful?

I don't think a national chain, private chain, will be successful over time.

What if they only wanted 15 schools? Could people make money running public schools?

I don't think you can make money running public schools. I don't think you can make money.

Do you say that from experience? Do you take a moral position that it's wrong in some way?

Oh, no. I'm not necessarily taking a moral position on it. I don't think, if the commitment is to educate all children in public schools, the poor along with the wealthy, that you're ever going to be able to contract with public school agencies and systems and be able to make money. I mean, most of the school systems around this country right now are going broke. They're cutting huge budgets. From coast to coast, states are hurting, the economy's terrible. [So] to use a public school system as your primary customer and they're all financially not doing well, right, I don't know how you make money in a system that way.

If the economy were still booming, would you have said, "Let's get rid of Edison?"

Perhaps. Certainly the need for us to balance a budget and looking under every stone was extremely important to us. On the other hand, the other part of that statement that I continue to make is that I think we can do it just as well, if not better. I really believe that. We've given Edison seven years of opportunity. They've done some great things here. I think we can take and build upon what they've done and do even greater things. ...

Do you wish them well?

I wish them well. Sure. I think I have some advice that they should listen to. Actually, I've talked and discussed with Mr. Whittle and Mr. Cerf some of my thoughts about that. Perhaps they will be a lot more successful in districts have greater challenges than we do here in Wichita.

What's your advice?

That they should not go into districts for the long term. They should maybe think about going in for a shorter term. They need to go in and maybe give a district a booster shot, give them a template to use, much like we did here in some of our schools, and then get out. That'd be one thing. The other advice I'd give them is quit worrying so much about expanding and worry more about what you got and take care of what you've got.

Let's talk about Ingalls and the problems there. When did you become aware that that school was having difficulty?

Oh, probably three years ago. We started seeing a lot of teacher turnover there. We saw declining enrollments. At one time, Ingalls was a school that had at least nearly 700 students, and it was losing about 100 students a year. Test performance was awful. They were not showing any increases; they were in fact going in the opposite direction. The same thing was happening at Isely.

Was Edison was aware that the school was having problems? That teachers were leaving? Administrators leaving? Families taking their children out?

[Definitely.]

How did Edison respond?

Not very well. In fact, I think they were non-responsive. We met several times with Edison. Of course, during that period of time, they had a number of supervisors who were assigned in Wichita. So one six-month period would be one person, and another six-month [period] would be somebody else, and you had to re-teach what all the problems were.

We actually tried to have quarterly meetings with Edison staff that would come into Wichita, and we would have our key staff and talk about the issues. But not much every happened. I think they were literally non-responsive at those two schools. ...

So, declining enrollments, losing teachers, losing administrators, and then cheating. Tell me about the cheating [scandal].

[Editors' Note: In 2001, a principal at Ingalls-Edison Academy in Wichita was removed from her position after an investigation found that she had encouraged teachers to read questions aloud and ignore time limits during a standardized test.]

I don't think the cheating was an Edison problem. I don't think that what happened at Ingalls happened because it was an Edison school, necessarily; although I do think there was some pressure put upon that school to improve its test scores. Probably a different kind of pressure than what most other schools, although today in public education, principals have huge accountabilities placed on them to make sure student achievement's going in the right direction. So I am not so sure that that same temptation might not occur someplace else. But I really do not believe that what happened as far as the cheating concern at Ingalls happened because of somebody at Edison saying, "You must do this."

What happened at Ingalls?

We had a very passionate principal there who cared a lot about the children who attended there, and particularly the African-American children who attended there who were struggling. And she, I think, was overzealous in trying to do whatever she could do to help them, in giving them prompts and probably more encouragement than what was allowed. Got into the way there. ...

Teachers there, several of them, said cheating was inevitable, given all the pressure they were under to get those test scores up. They stopped everything three weeks before the test and just practiced tests -- that sort of thing. So cheating was inevitable.

I don't know that it was inevitable. I think, again, schools around this country, particularly now with No Child Left Behind, feel tremendous pressure to perform well. I think that would be problematic in the days ahead of us in all schools. I mean, you're going to give teachers a temptation there that they've not had before to do well.

Edison, however, pays bonuses to principals when student test scores go up. Do you think money was a factor?

No.

Why do you say that so confidently?

I just know the principal. The principal would not have compromised student learning to get a bonus.

So this was overzealous?

I think she was overzealous. Again, I really don't think this had much to do with Edison as much as it had to do with her passion to do whatever she could do to assist these young kids.

What was Edison's response? Did you call them?

We did eventually. I mean that I don't know that I personally called them, but we did have a conversation about it. They were extremely concerned about it. In fact, they wanted to terminate the principal immediately. We ended up not doing that. We ended up working with this person who had spent 30 years as an administrator in this school district, a very, very good administrator in this district, and who was six months away from retirement. So we were able to work with Edison and work out a compromise. ...

Was Edison's financial picture part of your decision to say, "Let's terminate this contract?"

It was part of it, and their national position, financial position, was part of the decision. But the driving force behind this was really the administration's need to look at where we could save money and where we could save money without hurting kids. So we thought we could terminate the contract with them and save money and still educate kids just as well as anyone. ...

 

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published july 3, 2003

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