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Yale President's Move Is Touted as a 'Coup' For the Edison Project

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The Edison Project, Whittle Communications' plan to develop a nationwide for-profit system of innovative private schools, gained new impetus last week with the surprise announcement that Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the president of Yale University, would leave his post to lead the effort.

By hiring an educator who has been at the helm of one of the nation's pre-eminent universities for the past six years, Whittle has heightened the credibility and visibility of its fledgling project, observers said.

"People take things quite seriously when the president of Yale resigns to do something,'' said Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University and the head of the Coalition of Essential Schools. "That is quite a coup.''

"Surely it is a plus for the project,'' said P. Michael Timpane, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University. "The appointment of the president of Yale University has to have that effect.''

"But it brings questions with it as well,'' he added.

Some educators and business leaders have doubts about the economics of Whittle's plan.

The project calls for redesigning the elementary and secondary school from the ground up, then opening up to 1,000 private schools that would charge tuition no greater than the average per-pupil cost of public education, currently about $5,500 a year.

Others contend that the project will shift attention from public-school reform and help drain the public sector of the most able pupils.

Will Head 'Core Team'

But an essential element of the Edison Project, Whittle officials maintain, is that the new schools must serve as a model for education reform by offering any technological advances or educational innovations to the public schools to be copied.

Whittle also plans to provide grants to 20 percent of its student enrollment nationwide--with some inner-city campuses perhaps having a large proportion of their enrollment on scholarship--subsidized by more affluent families paying full tuition.

"We are going to be building private schools in the inner cities, and there aren't a lot of public schools being built in the inner cities,'' said Chris Whittle, the chairman of the Knoxville, Tenn.-based communications and marketing company that bears his name. Mr. Whittle disclosed his plans to create a chain of for-profit schools a year ago. (See Education Week, May 22, 1991.)

Mr. Whittle is responsible for hiring Mr. Schmidt, who will lead a seven-member "core team'' that will work to come up with a new school design within the next two years. (See Education Week, March 4, 1992.)

Mr. Schmidt, who raised some $600 million at Yale in the last two years alone, is also expected to play a critical role in helping raise the estimated $2.3 billion to $3 billion in investment capital needed to open the first 200 schools by 1996.

The Edison Project is a partnership of Whittle Communications and Time Warner Inc., Phillips Electronics N.V., and Associated Newspaper Holdings Limited.

Series of Overtures

Mr. Schmidt stunned the Yale community when his plans became public on May 26, one day after the university's commencement exercises. As of late last week, no date had been set for his departure.

In an interview, Mr. Schmidt said that Mr. Whittle first approached him about the project about two years ago. The two had known each other socially in New York City. Mr. Whittle first asked Mr. Schmidt last spring whether he would be willing to leave Yale to direct the Edison Project.

"He prefaced that by saying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy,''' Mr. Schmidt recalled. "I said, 'You're right.'''

With important labor negotiations coming up at Yale, as well as the launch of a major capital campaign, Mr. Schmidt said he dismissed the overture on that occasion and others.

Mr. Whittle came back to him this spring, making a last-ditch effort to persuade him to take the job.

Mr. Whittle said he chose Mr. Schmidt because of his management experience, his "tremendous educational credibility,'' and his "courage.''

"If he had enough courage to leave Yale, I figured he had enough courage to lead this project,'' Mr. Whittle said.

Some reports have suggested that financial worries at Yale, which has been grappling with a budget deficit, could have played a role in Mr. Schmidt's decision to accept Mr. Whittle's offer.

'Foundation of the System'

"It was a very difficult decision,'' Mr. Schmidt said in the interview. "This was an opportunity to contribute to the future of the country.''

"Those of us in the greatest higher-education system in the world really need to worry more about the foundation of the system, because it is not working well,'' he added.

Mr. Schmidt, who was dean of the Columbia University School of Law before taking his post at Yale, is noted academically as a constitutional-law scholar. He has not had any formal involvement in the reform of precollegiate education.

"I'm not remotely an expert in these matters, though I hope I will be fairly soon,'' he said.

He said he had been influenced by such recent books on U.S. schools as Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, by John E. Chubb--a member of the Edison "core team''--and Terry M. Moe, and Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol.

'The Wrong Signal'

Mr. Kozol, whose 1991 book chronicled the inequities between rich and poor school districts, last week was critical of Mr. Schmidt for joining the Edison Project.

"If it is idealism which motivates him, I don't understand why he needs to commercialize his intelligence,'' Mr. Kozol said. "Why not set up a nonprofit foundation, and not give deference to the almighty dollar.''

Arthur Levine, the chairman of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University's graduate school of education, said Mr. Schmidt's move "is sending entirely the wrong signal to the education community.''

"It would have been exciting for Benno Schmidt to move into public schooling,'' he said.

But Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said the Edison Project is "the big and bold experiment we need. The size of it will really test out our ideas.''

One of the biggest hurdles that the Whittle project faces in winning wider support from educators is the perception that its new schools will serve primarily an elite clientele, to the detriment of the public schools.

"If they are successful,'' Mr. Kozol said, "they will have put the first nail in the coffin of public education as we know it.''

Mr. Schmidt said such remarks miss the point of the enterprise.

"This is a kind of research-and-development effort, funded with private dollars, that the public-school system can benefit from if we are successful,'' he argued. "I think this is the best thing that can happen to public education.''

"One ought to wonder when people are terribly worried about competition,'' he said.

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