Edison Project Applies To Run 5 Mass. Charter Schools

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The Edison Project, the private education-reform effort launched by the Tennessee media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, has joined with local groups to apply to run five charter schools in Massachusetts, one-fifth of the total allowed under state law.

The Edison Project's applications were among 63 filed with the state Executive Office of Education by the Feb. 15 deadline for Massachusetts' first charter schools.

Under the charter-school law, state Education Secretary Piedad F. Robertson must decide by March 15 which applicants will be granted charters. They will then be permitted to enroll students with state funding while remaining free of local school board control and most state regulations.

Massachusetts has been viewed as one of the first places the much-debated Edison Project may be able to test its ideas for radical school change. The company, a unit of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Whittle Communications, has received verbal support from Gov. William F. Weld and State Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci for its ideas of taking over public schools either through charters or agreements with school districts. (See Education Week, Oct. 20, 1993.)

Ms. Robertson, who has established an advisory committee to review the applications, is an appointee of Governor Weld.

The Edison Project teamed up with community groups and individuals in four cities: Lowell, Holyoke, Worcester, and Boston, where the company has applied for two separate charters.

"We felt five is quite ambitious,'' said Stephen C. Tracy, a senior marketing representative for the Edison Project. "It takes some time to get to know community groups. We are hoping to get two or three charters out of this.''

In Lowell, Edison has the official support of the local school committee, which voted 5 to 2 earlier this month to support a charter-school application in which the project would take over one city school.

In all five of its applications, the project is working in partnership with local parents, business leaders, and educators, said Mr. Tracy, the former superintendent of the New Milford, Conn., school district.

Robert Gaudet, the president of the Horace Mann Foundation, a nonprofit group in Boston that has issued numerous reports about school reform, said his organization agreed to team up with Edison for one charter application in the city because it provided an opportunity to put reform philosophies to the test.

"It's a marriage of convenience,'' he said. "Doing reports is O.K., but this is a chance to start a school.''

Removal of Cap Sought

Ann Toda, a spokeswoman for the state's Executive Office of Education, said state officials were extremely pleased with the number of charter-school applications filed. Most were from local groups of parents and educators, and many applications focus on helping children at risk of school failure, she said.

Among the applicants were proposals for a communications school for black and Hispanic students, a cultural school to be operated by the Boston Ballet, and a school with an environmental-studies theme.

Under the charter-school law passed last year, no more than 25 charters may be granted, and the schools may not open until 1995. Governor Weld and other state officials are backing a bill pending in the legislature that would remove the cap and allow some charter schools to begin operations this fall.

"We've got to get that cap lifted,'' Ms. Toda said. "We are getting a real incredible diversity of ideas that shouldn't be pitted against each other.''

Vol. 13, Issue 22

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