A few years back, things didn't look too good for The Edison Project, former Knoxvillian Chris Whittle's plan to reshape American education.
A U.S. News and World Report story in December 1994 described Edison as "on the brink of collapse." As recently as last winter, The Nation--a liberal magazine that staunchly opposes the company's school privatization approach--was crowing that Edison was "in tatters...managing just four schools around the country and scrounging for operating funds on Wall Street."
Guess again. Edison may still be in its infancy, but it's very much alive, helped by a tide of education reform that includes the charter school movement. And Whittle, the company's founder and president, sounds as confident and upbeat as ever.
"The early results are promising, the academic data is in the right direction," he says, speaking from Edison's New York City offices.
He's got reason for optimism. Granted, Edison's basic concept--running public schools for profit, under contract with local school boards--got some bad PR when a different company, Education Alternatives Inc., failed spectacularly in a similar arrangement with Baltimore city schools.
But Whittle says Edison is on track, with contracts to operate 25 schools in eight states this fall, up from 12 schools a year ago. The company expects its revenues to grow this year to $70 million from $37 million. Whittle attributes early doom and gloom talk about the company to impatience and misunderstandings.
"Three or four years ago, we basically were in the R & D phase, and it's very easy to criticize something when it's not even born yet...And obviously when Whittle Communications had its difficulties, that didn't help matters."
It also didn't help that Whittle had initially painted Edison in bold terms as a national chain of schools, rhetoric he says was necessary to explain the concept.
"We were always going to have to build it from the ground up," he says. "But I don't think our goals have changed. We are trying to push the envelope, and I think [we're] doing so in a variety of different ways. And there's a lot of belief that what Edison is doing and what Edison represents beyond its own walls is important."
According to Edison officials, several of the schools they manage have shown demonstrable improvements in student achievement. At Dodge-Edison Elementary School in Wichita, Kan., for example, fifth-grade students increased their reading and math scores dramatically from 1995 to 1996.
Whittle expects the company to continue to grow annually, although he's not sure how fast.
"The limits are about logistics," he says. "We're not constrained by [lack of] demand. We could open far more schools than we're currently opening each year. But you have to [ask], how many schools can you quality control, how much capital is available at any one time?"
While Edison is not directly related to the charter school movement, Whittle says both spring from the same desire to offer new educational approaches. Five of the Edison schools are charter schools, and all of the states where the company has a presence--California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas--have charter school laws.
"The charter school movement is important to us," Whittle acknowledges. "The same folks who support charter schools also usually support what Edison is doing."
So now that Tennessee may be getting a charter law, will Edison be far behind?
"We are very interested in Tennessee," Whittle says. "Citizens here and there in Tennessee have been in touch with us...We're not in Tennessee yet, but we do plan to be. And we're looking forward to it."