The Learning Curve

Earnest eggheads came to Texas with an idea that for-profit schools can save public education. So far, it ain't working.

"The issues and problems in the school were not really problems of instruction or quality of teachers; they were about organizational building," says John Chubb, the director of curriculum for The Edison Project.

Even without the unanticipated problems, Chubb and Schmidt now say, observers shouldn't have expected a new curriculum to produce results, especially better test scores, in just one year. "You don't change a cohort of kids' mathematical abilities overnight," Chubb says.

But even as the company casts about for more schools to manage--and more investors--it is obvious that free enterprise offers no quick fix for public education.

The Edison Project, in fact, finds itself in much the same position as Alvarez: eager, fledgling, and offering more dreams than experience.

Alvarez soon will begin teaching at the school for the second year. He has spent his summer devising an Internet home page for the school. Alvarez believes that The Edison Project still affords him more educational tools than he could have imagined at his previous school.

"People think things happen right away. They don't," he says. "It takes time."

Marc Alvarez is exactly the kind of teacher The Edison Project wants. Chris Whittle, Edison founder and guru, says he knows this from swapping messages with Alvarez through the company's Internet chat room. "He's great," says Whittle.

That the 49-year-old Whittle knows, much less e-mails, a teacher in North Texas speaks volumes about his fervor for his for-profit education venture.

Whittle came to this curious calling from a background that gave little hint of a future running elementary schools. Before he unveiled The Edison Project in 1991, Whittle owned Esquire and Seventeen magazines, and founded the cable educational television station Channel One.

He lived the quintessential jet-setter life frequently chronicled in the pages of his magazines, with lavish homes in his company's hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and in the Hamptons. He had an apartment in Manhattan at the Dakota, where John Lennon lived. In 1990, Whittle married Priscilla Rattazzi, the niece of Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli.

Whittle's business world, like his life, was populated with the glitterati. To help run his wide assortment of ventures--which at one point included a women's pro baseball team--Whittle hired the likes of William S. Rukeyser, the former editor of Fortune magazine, and former Jimmy Carter advisor Hamilton Jordan.

Whittle had what were often seen as wild ideas: a commercial television channel directed at schoolchildren, one-issue magazines for doctor's offices, and, of course, his innovative schools.

In the late 1980s, Whittle's far-range thinking attracted an impressive array of investors. Time Warner, for instance, invested more than $185 million in his ventures. The electronics corporation Phillips Electronics, U.S. subsidiary of a Dutch conglomerate, also poured in considerable sums.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1992, Whittle began assembling the intelligentsia he wanted to help him launch The Edison Project. He hired former Yale President Benno Schmidt Jr. and a truckload of other celebrity thinkers, vowing to transform--for a profit--the way America educates its children.

Schmidt's hiring created a splash on the pages of Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times, but Whittle attracted a long list of other well-credentialed academicians for his fledgling company.

John Chubb, part of the early group, was a Brookings Institution fellow who had co-written Politics, Markets and America's Schools, a book that launched much debate about the standards of schools.

Journalists were also among those hired, including Lee Eisenberg, a former editor of Esquire, and Dominique Browning, a former editor of the back-of-the-book section at Newsweek.

During the heady early days, when The Edison Project was all plans and promise, Whittle would bring his flashy hires together at his sprawling corporate headquarters in Knoxville. By 1993, the press began reporting the company's bold plans: Whittle was talking about spending $2 billion to set up programs for 100 campuses, serving 150,000 students, by 1996. He was planning on educating some 2 million students by the end of the decade.

But by the time Business Week dubbed Whittle "a New Age Marshall McLuhan, or an old-time Elmer Gantry," he was already in financial trouble, and those early projections seemed ludicrous.

Whittle's finances on other fronts began to fall to pieces, and by early 1995, he sold all of his companies except The Edison Project.

As he lost all of his other significant commercial assets at fire-sale prices, Whittle was forced to substantially scale back his vision for The Edison Project, and to scramble for money.

Many of Whittle's one-time backers, including Time Warner, soured on what were now perceived as his wild ideas.

Looking to raise cash to keep his plan afloat, Whittle found a new investor, the Sprout Group, a New York-based venture capital firm that agreed to put up $12 million.

Schmidt ponied up $1 million of his own money. ("When I joined Edison, I was putting something much more important than money into it--my career," Schmidt says). Schmidt also convinced two other investors to contribute $1 million apiece.

Whittle sold his Dakota apartment to raise cash for the venture, and poured $15 million of his own money into the project. "This is his passion, his baby," says Janet Hickey, general partner of the Sprout Group.

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