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Mass. Officials Endorse Idea of Whittle-Run Schools

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Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts and top state education officials have endorsed the idea of having the private Edison Project run some of the state's public schools.

No deal has been signed, and it may be several months before any formal arrangement is made. Nevertheless, public statements by the Massachusetts leaders have put them in the forefront of those willing to consider the controversial school-reform vision championed by the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle and Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former Yale University president who now serves as the president of the Edison Project.

Governor Weld and State Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci appeared to endorse the project this month during a visit to Boston by Mr. Schmidt.

"Chris Whittle and Benno Schmidt are offering a refreshing new vision for our schools,'' Governor Weld told the Boston Herald. "The Edison Project's creativity and innovation may also inspire existing public schools here in Massachusetts to transform their own classrooms.''

The Edison Project is a privately financed venture that has proposed to feature state-of-the-art technology, a longer school day and year, innovative school organization, and new curriculum and teaching methods in its own, for-profit schools and in public school districts willing to turn over one or more schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

This past summer, the project shifted its focus from a plan to build numerous private campuses to developing partnerships with districts to operate schools under the Edison methods. The project last week hired Deborah M. McGriff, the superintendent of the Detroit schools, to help sign up districts. (See story, page 10.)

Mr. Schmidt said in an interview last week that he is optimistic that the Bay State will be among the first to form ties with the Edison Project.

"I have high hopes that Massachusetts will be one of the pioneering states ... with which we can work,'' he said. "We've gotten a great deal of encouragement in Massachusetts from people at all levels.''

Focus on Charter Schools

Since earlier this year, Governor Weld and other state officials have expressed interest in the Edison Project, while Edison leaders took an interest in the comprehensive education-reform law passed by the legislature in June. (See Education Week, June 16, 1993.)

The reform law contains two provisions that offer an opportunity for participation by the Edison Project. One is a measure allowing the state to take over nonperforming school districts. Officials have suggested that the state might experiment with the Edison Project in some of those schools.

Perhaps more importantly, the legislation authorizes up to 25 charter schools to be operated by parents, teachers, or other groups,beginning in September 1995.

Applications for charter schools would be approved by the state education secretary, currently Piedad Robertson, who is a gubernatorial appointee.

"Now that the charter-schools legislation is in place, certainly I think the secretary is going to look very favorably on the Edison Project,'' said Steven Wilson, a special assistant to Governor Weld.

Any effort to turn public schools over to the Edison Project would face strong opposition from the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

"I think we have really strong feelings [against] for-profit ventures and privatization,'' said Robert Murphy, the union's president.

But the union would face an uphill battle to keep the Edison Project from winning some of the charter-school slots, Mr. Murphy acknowledged.

"The problem with our charter-schools act is that politically it comes down strongly on the side of the Governor, '' he said. "The secretary of education, a gubernatorial appointee, gets to approve charter schools. If Chris Whittle and his folks can convince the Governor and his secretary, then there will likely be some presence of the Edison Project in our charter-schools structure.''

Mr. Wilson agreed. "I think the battle has largely been won,'' he said, "although we can be sure the entrenched education interests will continue to try to revoke the charter-school provision.''

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