Whittle's Woes Cast Further Pall Over Edison Project

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The Edison Project's booklet outlining student standards for the elementary grades says teachers should organize special, unannounced events now and then so students will learn that "the real world is filled with unplanned happenings." Thus will youngsters "delight in the element of surprise."

The Edison Project itself has faced some surprises recently, although hardly delightful.

The fall of the media empire of its founder, Christopher Whittle, coupled with difficulties in nailing down commitments from communities that once showed interest in turning over some of their schools to Edison, is creating doubts about whether the for-profit education-reform effort will make the grade.

First came last summer's disintegration of Whittle Communications--the shutdown of various media properties and the sale of the Channel One classroom news show.

Recent media reports paint a less-than-flattering portrait of Mr. Whittle's management acumen.

The New Yorker magaine reported that Benno C. Schmidt Jr., whom Mr. Whittle recruited to lead the Edison Project, had requested recently that Edison's board remove Mr. Whittle as chairman because he had become a liability in attracting new investment. Mr. Whittle remains as chairman.

In a recent interview, Mr. Schmidt would not confirm whether he had sought the ouster of Mr. Whittle, who is one of three major investors in the project. But friction between the two was apparent.

"Everyone understands that we have an Edison management team that has been in place for almost two years," Mr. Schmidt said. "We're the ones who represent the Edison Project."

Mr. Whittle, meanwhile, said last week that he will remain as chairman and is working on attracting new investments. He said he expects to announce deals by year's end, if not sooner.

As for his relationship with Mr. Schmidt, who had been the president of Yale University before taking the Edison job, Mr. Whittle said: "It's important to bring very strong, bright people into any business. Anytime you do that, you are going to have your bumps."

Hawaii Deal Stalls

Even before Whittle Communications' troubles cast a pall over Edison, the project had run into difficulties.

So far, it has just one signed contract--to run a new elementary school in Mount Clemens, Mich. In other communities, such as Wichita, Kan., and Trenton, N.J., local educators remain committed to the idea of contracting with the Edison Project, but have yet to take final action.

In Hawaii, Edison won a letter of intent last summer to run seven schools in the state's single public school district, beginning next fall. By October, however, state officials determined that Edison could not be awarded such a contract without competitive bidding, a time-consuming process that will make it impossible for the project to take control of schools by next fall.

Greg Knudsen, the spokesman for the Hawaii education department, said the potential contract with Edison was worth as much as $100 million to the project over five years.

"That is a lot of money," he said. "You can't just offer that without putting it out to bid."

School Sites Sought

In Massachusetts, Edison is a leading partner in three groups that won charters from the state to create autonomous public schools. But two of the three groups have faced problems securing school sites. The state's charter-school law does not provide any financial assistance for buildings.

"We're trying to put something together, but it is difficult because of the problem with finding a location," said Richard Howe, the Mayor of Lowell, Mass., and a member of a charter-school group there working with Edison.

These hurdles form a sort of chicken-and-egg problem for the Edison Project. Uncertainty about much-needed investment seems to be delaying completion of contracts. But Edison may need those contracts to convince investors that it has eager customers.

Mr. Schmidt said the project could begin with less than the target of $25 million to $50 million in new investment.

"It depends on how many schools we decide to open," he said. "A few million wouldn't do it. But it doesn't have to be $25 million."

Vol. 14, Issue 11

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