Education Opinion

Chris Whittle: Look at the Numbers

By John Merrow — August 05, 1992 10 min read

To figure out Chris Whittle, the educational entrepreneur, look beyond the headlines, at the numbers. Mr. Whittle made headlines in late May when he hired Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, to lead what Mr. Whittle calls, rather grandly, “The Edison Project.’' It will, he says, create 1,000 new, profit-making private schools for 2 million students by the year 2010. These will be schools for all children, “ages 0 to 18,’' Mr. Whittle said when he announced the project. The tuition, he says, will not exceed the national per-pupil expenditure (about $5,000), and he promises to give scholarships to many children whose parents can’t afford the tuition.

Everybody’s figured out the dollars. Two million students times $5,000 equals $10 billion. But who’s thought about the other number, school size? Do that math: Two million students in 1,000 schools--that’s 2,000 kids per school. Big schools--would you want your 8-year-old, your 12-year old, in a school that size?

Next we learned that Chris Whittle apparently pays more than Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire. That juicy tidbit emerged when Mr. Whittle lost a prominent employee to Mr. Perot’s exploratory Presidential campaign. Hamilton Jordan, the former political strategist for Jimmy Carter, signed on to co-direct that short-lived campaign, but he had been working for Mr. Whittle. We don’t know the precise number--Hamilton Jordan’s salary--but (by way of denying that Ross Perot was “buying’’ him) Mr. Jordan announced that he’d taken a pay cut to work for Perot.

But in losing Mr. Jordan to Ross Perot, Chris Whittle won. It demonstrated, if we didn’t already know, that he’s playing with the big boys, for big stakes. He’s taking on the public schools and promising his investors (Time Warner, Phillips Electronics, and Associated Newspaper Holdings Limited) that he’ll make money for them.

Mr. Whittle is apparently already making money with “Channel One,’' the daily 12-minute newscast in high-school classrooms--with two minutes of commercials. In return for a captive audience of teenagers, he has given participating schools valuable equipment, TV’s, VCR’s, a satellite dish. His organization says each school receives about $50,000 in equipment, but those numbers are in dispute. The head of a rival organization, CNN Newsroom, told me that the Whittle organization is greatly exaggerating the value of the equipment. He says it’s worth less than $10,000.

That argument aside, what happens when kids watch the news every day? Not much. Chris Whittle commissioned a study to find out, and, to his credit, he made those numbers public even though the study showed that Channel One watchers did not know more about current events than non-Channel One watchers.

What hasn’t been answered in public is this question: “Do Channel One watchers remember the COMMERCIALS?’' I’d love to know the numbers on that. I can’t believe that someone as smart as Chris Whittle would not have asked the students, “Who sponsored the news?’' and “What were the commercials advertising?’' That’s what Burger King and the other advertisers on Channel One want to know.

Back to those profit-making schools for a minute. Does anybody doubt that business, with its nose firmly under the Whittle tent already, will play a major role in the Edison schools? Companies with a big stake in Mr. Whittle’s business (which is what his schools will be) will want to ensure their success ... but how? By lobbying for educational vouchers and other tax breaks for private-school parents? Will we develop what Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers calls “an educational-industrial complex’’?

What will be commercialized inside the schools?

  • Advertising in the hallways? (Mr. Whittle was doing that for years before he created Channel One.)

  • Textbooks? (Maybe they’ll carry advertising, like those one-sponsor special edition books that Whittle now publishes.)

  • The high-school football team? (Hey, why not? Isn’t your local Little League team sponsored by the supermarket or the car dealer? What’s the difference?)

A brilliant salesman, Chris Whittle is clearly a force to be reckoned with in American education, but not everything he touches turns to gold. In late 1990 he announced the creation of The Educators’ Channel. He hired the respected journalist Judy Woodruff to host “American Classroom,’' a series for teachers, and the aforementioned Mr. Shanker to host “The World of Teaching.’' But that didn’t fly and is now “on hold,’' according to a Whittle spokesman.

Chris Whittle is a man of ideas, for sure. I have in my possession what purports to be a copy of an all-staff memo from Chairman Whittle himself. While I can’t vouch for its authenticity and am not at liberty to say just where or how I acquired it (or whether I made it up), it does make for interesting reading. It is undated.


I want to review our grand strategy of “cannot avoid’’ advertising, that is, of placing our clients’ ads in places where a captive audience is under our control. Now that we have successfully captured America’s high-school students in the classroom and America’s mothers in their doctors’ waiting rooms with our special magazines, we have to ask, “What’s next?’' What else do all Americans do? Where else do all Americans have to go, and how can we (as they say) get in their face?

“Birth, death, and taxes,’' are the unavoidable experiences. Most Americans vote, most Americans go to church, and everybody goes to the bathroom.

Begin with birth: The ceilings of labor and delivery rooms (in upscale hospitals only) are a natural--horizontal ads for the moms. Let’s approach Pampers, Gerber, and others who produce baby products. Remember, lots of fathers are in delivery rooms these days, so we go vertical (the walls, guys) for them. My approach would be, “Now that you’re a proud father, shouldn’t you dress like one?’' Maybe L. L. Bean or some of those mail-order places would want their phone number on the wall. How about a mail-order cigar-delivery company (and if there isn’t one, should we start one up?)?

Also, let’s face the fact that having a baby is painful. We could have some pain-killer ads up there, or maybe some (tasteful) birth-control ads that say, subtly, “You don’t have to go through this again. ...’'

So, birth is easy. Get to work on it.

Death is tougher. Sure, it’s inevitable, but it’s also messy, emotional, and unpredictable. The inside top of the coffin is a natural billboard about 6’x 2', and an ad there would have a nice short-term payoff during open-casket services. Long term: no audience, too dark to read. Plus, if I remember my Emily Post, rich people don’t do open caskets. So, so far I’m drawing a blank on death.

Wait a minute. What if we put that in our own advertising? A picture of a coffin with words like “Whittle Communications will leave you alone once you’re here, but we’ll get you while you’re anywhere else.’' I like that! Get to work on it.

Taxes--we can’t miss on this one. Every day the government gets deeper and deeper in debt. They’re hurting, guys. And I’m prepared to go directly to the President and offer to print, free of charge, all the tax forms and tax books from now on ... in return for a modest amount of ad space, say a little strip across the bottom of each page. H&R Block will be begging at our doors. Johnny Walker, J&B, beer, cigarettes, Tylenol, Excedrin ... they’ll all want to pitch their “relief.’'

Voting--can we get on the ballot? Hey, we got into schools despite the naysayers and troglodytes, and we can get behind that curtain. It’s true that only about 60 percent vote, but it’s generally an upscale 60 percent. Lots of room for messages, particularly on those long ballots. The possibilities are dazzling. “Don’t you feel good about voting? Now, about looking better. ...’' Or we can jump on that negative mode, with ads for AlkaSeltzer, Rolaids, or Pepto Bismol. “Honestly, don’t some of these scoundrels make you just sick to your stomach ... .’'

Churches and other places of worship: Ministers, rabbis, and priests can be a touchy lot. But let’s remind them (and ourselves) that the Constitution only puts up a barrier between Church and State; there’s nothing in there about Church and Madison Avenue.

Nevertheless, we need to be particularly sensitive here. We might carefully suggest adding an extra Station of the Cross (a night at the Hilton or Holiday Inn). Sponsored pews appeal to me, sort of like those private sky boxes at the new stadiums. Or maybe an attendance tie-in: “Go to Church 10 Sundays in a row, and get 25 percent off on a Club Med vacation,’' something like that. Handle it delicately, guys, but remember that ministers are salesmen too. They speak our language. And Jesus threw out the moneychangers--not us mindchangers.

Finally, the bathroom: This is so obvious I’m embarrassed. Everyone has to go. They’re just sitting there. So why not advertising right on the toilet paper itself? Imprint on both sides, because Yankees apparently put the roll in backwards. Our research shows that high-income people use more paper, and they read more.

What a great ad campaign Charmin can have with that old coot Mr. Whipple. “Mr. Whipple says, ‘Please don’t squeeze the Charmin’ ... but please read the Charmin.’'

Other companies will want space, for sure. Imagine “Having trouble today?’' Or “Want to make this trip smooth sailing?’' “Want to be a regular guy again?’' Followed by a pitch for Ex-Lax or Milk of Magnesia or one of those bran cereals.

And fast food too. We’ve already got Burger King on Channel One, so let’s approach Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s. I can see something like, “Having trouble today? Our food will make this part of your life faster too.’' That would give a new meaning to that McDonald’s slogan about “doing it all for you.’' Yes, fast food is a natural for toilet paper, if we can just figure out how to package the discount coupons ... that gets messy.

Finally, a reminder: I’m staying up nights trying out how we can force feed our advertising to Americans everywhere ... and I expect my staff to do the same.

And the memo, if it really is Mr. Whittle’s memo, ends with the exhortation, “Get to Work.’'

Back to Edison. If the Edison Project is successful, Chris Whittle will have done to public schools what Federal Express has done to the U.S. Post Office. Think about it. Before FedEx came along, the postal service was lousy. Now, the post office is trying to clean up its own act. It offers its own Express Mail, for a few bucks less than FedEx. Just the threat of Edison Schools may force the public schools to clean up their own act. And if that happens, we will all owe Chris Whittle a huge debt of thanks.

But that’s not all Fed Ex has done to the post office. It has skimmed off the cream, the customers who are willing and able to pay $15 or more to get their packages delivered on time. The post office, judging from my mailbox anyway, is left with all the losers--junk mail. That’s what’s in store for the public schools; they’ll get the educational equivalent of junk mail--the kids nobody wants.

But the scariest aspect of this FedEx-Whittle analogy is operational. Federal Express runs everything through one central point, Memphis (ironically, in Chris Whittle’s home state of Tennessee). FedEx does it for reasons of efficiency and economy. Will Whittle schools do the same? Centralized data processing? Well, O.K. But centralized administration? A centralized curriculum?

Most public schools are mediocre, no question about that, but will Edison Project schools be better? Chris Whittle has to live by the numbers. He’s in business to make a profit, and at what point would he cut corners on services to ensure a profit? How much pressure will his investors bring to see that the Edison schools make money?

The Edison Project promises “break the mold’’ schools, but I’m afraid I foresee institutions that look more like factories for the priviledged. Lots of young people and machines, not many adults. Efficient, humorless, fundamentally grim. Fundamentally anti-learning. For me, the numbers don’t add up. No Sale.

John Merrow is executive editor and host of the new monthly PBS series, “Learning Matters.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Chris Whittle: Look at the Numbers