Budget & Finance

Edison Makes Bid To Run Troubled Schools in N.Y.C., Pa.

By Robert C. Johnston — January 10, 2001 3 min read
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In its most significant expansion efforts, the nation’s largest for-profit school-management firm is targeting academically troubled schools in two districts.

Edison Schools Inc., which runs 113 schools in 45 cities, was chosen from 14 finalists by New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy to manage five of the city’s lowest-performing schools. The company also is teaming up with local teachers’ unions in a bid to operate all 11 public schools in the Chester- Upland, Pa., system.

The New York City sites are among 57 academically deficient schools that form the Chancellor’s District, which is overseen by the chancellor and the board of education.

Mr. Levy said in a statement that he sought the proposals “to see what added value the private sector can bring to improve these schools. We owe it to the schools and the children to try.”

Receiving the chancellor’s blessing, however, was just the first step for the company in getting a potentially lucrative foothold into the 1.1 million- student district. The board of education must vote on the plan that would permit Edison to move into New York—an action that a majority of the city’s seven board members have publicly endorsed.

More difficult, perhaps, would be getting a majority of parents in each of the schools to approve converting the sites into independent public charter schools, as is required by state law before Edison can take over.

Mr. Levy hopes that the process will go smoothly this spring, and that the 5,000 students currently enrolled in those five schools will be attending spruced-up, Edison-run schools by the fall of 2001.

Ultimately, Edison also would have to negotiate labor contracts with the teachers in the schools.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union will back whatever the parents decide, but is warning them to study the issue.

“If you have a marginal dollar, where does it get invested?” she asked of a privately run school. “Does it go to the shareholder’s pocket, or to kids’ supplies and getting the best teachers?”

Business Partners

In contrast, state and local affiliates of the National Education Association are asking the three- member, state-appointed board that controls the Chester-Upland district in Pennsylvania to turn over all 11 of its schools to Edison and the unions.

The 7,000-student district south of Philadelphia fell under state control this past summer as part of a new law that gives the state board enhanced powers to intervene in troubled districts.

As part of that process, a local group of school and community leaders drafted a school improvement plan that seeks private management of district schools.

Seeing the writing on the wall, union officials began searching for a partner who would run the schools with them. As one union official said, “Teachers were going to be in or out.”

In the end, the union officials and Edison settled on one another, they announced last month.

“We think this represents the best hope for the constant quality of education for the children of Chester-Upland,” said James P. Testerman, the treasurer for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

The proposal to run the schools in the Chester-Upland district, which has a $72 million budget, would be Edison’s second chance to manage an entire district. Last fall, Edison took over the schools in the 1,500-student Inkster, Mich., district.

A final decision is not expected in Chester-Upland until next month at the earliest.

The pending proposals underscore the opportunity for private firms to capitalize on state efforts to identify low-performing schools.

“You’ll see a lot of situations like these across the country,” said the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, the president of Edison’s charter school division. “Wherever you see massive failure, we’ll be interested.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Edison Makes Bid To Run Troubled Schools in N.Y.C., Pa.

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