Whittle Unveils Team To Design New Schools

By Mark Walsh — March 04, 1992 5 min read

Chris Whittle, the Tennessee businessman who has set his sights on developing a chain of innovative for-profit private schools, last week announced an eclectic group of seven “core team” members--including two nationally prominent education-reform advocates- to design the project.

Among those quitting their current jobs to help Mr. Whittle develop a blueprint for a “new American school system” will be John E. Chubb and Chester E. Finn Jr.

Mr. Chubb is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of an influential book on school choice; Mr. Finn is a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and an outspoken former assistant U.S. secretary for educational research and improvement.

Also on the team, announced at a press conference here late last week, are representatives of the education, media, and business communities.

“In their own way, and in their own fields, they are change agents,” Mr. Whittle said in describing the seven members of his initial design team for his Edison Project.

That project, which Mr. Whittle announced last year, is intended to be the research-and-development phase of a plan to open at least 200 innovative private schools in urban areas across the country.

Mr. Whittle, a successful and often controversial media entrepreneur who invented the “Channel I One” classroom news show for schools, hopes to redesign the concept of the typical elementary or secondary school from the ground up.

Under his plan, he has explained, state-of-the-art facilities will operate at about the same per· pupil cost as nearby public schools. And, he has said, any educational innovation developed for the company’s for-profit schools will be made available as a reform model for other schools. (See Education Week, May 22,1991.)

‘Experts and Innocents’

The seven core-team members have made a three-year, full-time commitment to join the Edison Project. One of the group’s main tasks will be to identify some 90 to 100 other reform specialists who will help create a blueprint for a “new American school.” Besides Mr. Chubb and Mr. Finn, the group includes:

  • Daniel Biederman, the president of the Grand Central and 34th Street Partnerships in New York City. Mr. Biederman’s group pioneered a plan for the private delivery of security and sanction service to a 100-block area surrounding Grand Central Station in Manhattan. He will be the only part-time member of the team.
  • Dominque Browning, an assistant managing editor of Newsweek magazine, who brings an expertise in journalistic coverage of education and family issues.
  • Lee Eisenberg, the former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, which was once owned in part by Mr. Whittle.
  • Nancy Hechinger, the founder of an interactive multimedia production company and a former designer at the Apple Media Lab.
  • Sylvia L. Peters, the principal of the Alexandre Dumas Elementary School in Chicago.
  • The team includes both " experts and innocents,” Mr. Whittle said in an interview last week.

    Mr. Finn is the author of numerous books and articles on education reform, and he helped Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander formulate the current Administration’s education-reform strategy.

    Asked about the similarities between the Edison Project and the Administration’s plan for privately funded New American Schools, Mr. Finn said: “I think they are complementary ventures. We are not used to this in education, having so many reform ideas at once. I think there is a huge public benefit to this project of it succeeds. “

    Mr. Chubb is the co-author of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the controversial 1990 book that called for an open market in which public and private schools would compete for students.

    He said he joined the Edison Project because it presented the rare opportunity for a social scientist to seek to turn academic ideas into reality.

    Mr. Chubb added that he doubts the seven team members bring a single orthodoxy or ideology on education reform to the project.

    “I think there is a diverse set of opinions here,” he said.

    Mr. Eisenberg, who has spent the past year working in London to launch a British edition of Esquire magazine, said “a certain humanism is going to prevail” over the team members’ individual political beliefs.

    Ms. Peters, who is said to have increased the attendance rate, boosted the esteem of her pupils, and made other improvements at her inner-city Chicago public school, acknowledged that she had never heard of Mr. Whittle until the two had appeared together a few years ago on public television’s “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report.”

    “I later went to hear him speak at a dinner, and I did not agree with everything he said at the dinner,” she said. Nonetheless, she said, she agreed to learn more about Mr. Whittle’s proposed school venture, and she accepted his offer to be a member of the design team.

    Some educators have expressed fear that the schools developed by the Edison Project will be saturated with advertising-ranging from the use of “Channel One” to corporate sponsorship of the textbooks.

    Ms. Hechinger said she was initially “very concerned” about the 12-minute daily news show, which is shown in about 9,000 schools. But her concerns were eased, she said, after seeing the “quality” of the program.

    Ability To Replicate

    Mr. Whittle has stressed that he does not want to build an “elitist"alternative system of private schools. Students will be selected randomly for openings in the schools, and 20 percent of the places will be set aside for full-scholarship students.

    He further maintains that the Edison Project will not harm public education because whatever the design team comes up with must be able to be replicated in public schools.

    Despite such assurances, said Ellen Shearer, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, the project “is diverting attention and focus from the problems of the public schools”

    The seven design-team members will become limited partners in the schools project. The $60 million for the Edison Project’s design phase is coming from Whittle Communications L.P. and its major owners—Time Warner Inc. the Dutch-based Philips Electronics N.V., and the British-based Associated Newspaper Holdings Ltd.

    Whittle will later seek investments of from $2.5 billion to $3 billion to open an initial 200 schools by 1995 to serve some 150,000 students ages 1 through 6.

    Mr. Whittle envisions opening about 1,000 schools serving some two million pupils by the year 2010.

    Most of the core-group members will be moving to Whittle’s Knoxville, Tenn. Headquarters, although Mr. Finn will remain in Washington, and Mr. Biederman and Ms. Browning will work out of New York City.

    A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 1992 edition of Education Week as Whittle Unveils Team To Design New Schools