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US: Edison Awarded Two More Schools

by  Robert StraussThe Washington Post
May 16th, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- Maxcine Collier had been principal of the 400-student Anderson Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia for five years when, in 2001, she was told that a for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc., was going to take over the school's management from the Philadelphia School District.

Parents and teachers were apprehensive, she said. But more than three-quarters of Anderson's students were performing below grade level, according to Pennsylvania state testing standards. The school, in a neighborhood that borders suburban Upper Darby, housed many special-education students from other parts of the city.

"There was no cohesiveness. Many of the children were from elsewhere, and they didn't bond, which hurts education, especially in urban settings," Collier said. "We knew something had to be done better."

Three years later, Collier said, Edison's curriculum, particularly in math and writing, has doubled the number of children who reach state proficiency levels and has unified her teachers. "We still have a long way to go, but I can see already we are on the right track," she said.

Last month, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which runs the nation's fifth-largest school district, awarded contracts to Edison to operate two more public schools, in addition to the 20 it gave the company three years ago. The 20 schools were considered among the worst performing elementary and middle schools in the city -- many with less than 10 percent of students at grade level -- and the district was seeking ideas on how to improve them.

Though six other organizations, including Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, were given contracts to manage schools, it is Edison that has taken the lead and come under the most scrutiny as the third academic year of Philadelphia's school "privatization" trial ends next month. Edison, which manages five charter schools in the District of Columbia, has the largest number of Philadelphia schools under its supervision and is the only provider to be offered more by the commission this year.

It has been loudest at proclaiming its purported successes and, perhaps only because it is the largest, taken the brunt of the criticism. It almost went out of business in 2001 when Wall Street traders dropped its stock to less than $1, contending that Edison could not survive managing a mere 20 schools. Edison has since been taken private and asserts that it is solvent.

"I think a lot of people in public education around the country have been watching us," said Chris Whittle, Edison's chief executive. "It is in Philadelphia where the movement of outside management of schools is most advanced, and Edison is in the lead here. It is our most high-profile commitment ever, and we accept the criticism and praise that will come."

The privatization movement in Philadelphia was an outgrowth of an agreement between then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, and Mayor John F. Street, a Democrat, that the state would offer more funding for the city's schools if it had more control over how they were run. The state appointed the School Reform Commission, which essentially runs the district, with James Nevels, an influential attorney and head of an investment firm, as its chairman.

Critics, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the unionized employees in the district, complained that Edison would reassign teachers willy-nilly. After much wrangling, Edison did not get the exclusive contract it wanted, and the teachers union continued to represent teachers and principals. Though many experienced teachers transferred out of the Edison schools, all the schools began that first year fully staffed.

"There was a concern at the time that Edison wouldn't be solvent, but I am a pension manager and did the due diligence and determined they would be viable," Nevels said. "It has turned out marvelous, too. There was a lot of outcry at the beginning, which isn't all bad. But when we awarded the two schools to Edison at the April meeting, there was nary a peep."

Nevels and Richard Barth, Edison's manager in Philadelphia, said that based on a standardized state test, grade-level proficiency in the schools Edison manages has increased from 6 percent to 21 percent of students in the first two years of the contract.

"We have invested in improving the quality of leadership, doing more training with principals and teachers, brought in a focused core curriculum and invested in core values like respect, integrity and responsibility," Barth said. "We have dramatically improved student achievement in the worst schools in the district. Is 21 percent grade-level proficient ultimately acceptable? No, it is not. But it is on the road to where we want to be."

But privatization critics are skeptical. The teachers union contends the improvement is small and comes at the expense of other schools in the district.

"Edison is getting, what, about $200 per student extra, which means the money has to be coming out of somewhere else," said Hal Moss, chief information officer for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "And who is saying that money is going into the schools anyway? They have to make a profit.

"But the important thing is that the district has a budget and other schools will presumably have less money," Moss said. "So then, at a better school, the principal will now have to say, 'Do I cut the music teacher or the computer teacher?' And everyone will suffer for this small improvement Edison might make in other schools."

Even that improvement might be illusory, said Eva Gold, a founder of Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that has been studying school reform for a dozen years. She said the improvement in state test scores is only one notion of what educational success might be.

"When you teach to that test, you can, initially, improve the scores for those at the margin. So they are claiming success when it is far too early to tell," Gold said. "More importantly, this was said to be an effort at competition, to see whether private or nonprofit companies could do better. But it seems more collaborative, with the School Reform Commission working more closely with Edison and the others. It just seems too quick -- less than three years -- to call this a model."

Nevels defends the School Reform Commission's award of additional schools to Edison as prudent. After all, he said, the Philadelphia schools were in dire circumstances. Test scores were only part of the problem. The panoply of urban school district troubles -- discipline problems, high dropout rates, deficient facilities, lack of a coordinated curriculum -- were all too prevalent in Philadelphia, he said.

"Certainly funding is and was a problem, but if we show we are improving, and Edison has started that, there will be continued funding from the state," he said. "The only way we are going to improve schools here is if the state and the city cooperate. If that means more private and public cooperating in running the most difficult schools, then that is what we may have to do."

But Paul Socolar, who edits the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent nonprofit newspaper that covers the district, is not convinced.

"The concern was raised three years ago, and is relevant today, that Edison and the like is all a diversion, a way of avoiding the fundamental issues, which are chronic underfunding, the movement of the best students out of the system, crumbling schools, not enough texts, training of teachers, not enough staff, a whole range of things," Socolar said. "There has been an improvement in test scores in those schools, and that is to be lauded, but in some cases, these schools had positive trends.

"There is no doubt other urban districts are looking at what is going on in Philadelphia," he said. "We just hope they are looking closely and not just taking a few test scores as the big answer."

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