No class

New York-based Edison Schools flunked out with trying to privatize Sherman's public schools. Why should things be any different in Dallas?

Good riddance, say district honchos. Dealing with Edison officials, Garrett says, was "probably the most unpleasant and difficult thing I've had to deal with as a school administrator."

As Edison retreats from Sherman, it prepares to take command of six elementary schools in Dallas, the new jewel in its nationwide empire of privatized public schools, following a hotly debated mid-November vote by school trustees to hire the firm. Local opinion-makers insist that Edison's failure in Sherman is irrelevant, beside the point. Dallas school trustee Roxan Staff argues that Dallas schools' size and higher spending per student make comparisons a moot point. "Sherman's problem is Sherman's problem," she told The Dallas Morning News.

Not for long.

Edison founder Chris Whittle wants to create the Gap of privatized public schools.
AP/Wide World Photo
Edison founder Chris Whittle wants to create the Gap of privatized public schools.
DISD Superintendent Bill Rojas fought to bring Edison to Dallas -- but for now he wouldn't invest in the company with his own money.
DISD Superintendent Bill Rojas fought to bring Edison to Dallas -- but for now he wouldn't invest in the company with his own money.

Dallas is putting some of its children in the hands of a company that has its headquarters on New York City's Fifth Avenue and that is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. This fall, Edison Schools, which counts 38,000 students in 79 mostly urban schools nationwide in its growing network, will take responsibility -- and $50 million a year of the Dallas Independent School District's money -- for educating at least 6,500 Dallas elementary schoolchildren in six or more yet-to-be-named schools. Assuming "satisfactory performance," Edison will reap 3,500 more of Dallas' students in at least four schools by the 2001 school year, and 2,250 more students each year thereafter for three years.

The deal sends a strong message on social class in public education, says one observer.

"The willingness to contract with Edison is a public admission of the failure to invest equitably in [low-income] schools," says Linda McNeil, a Rice University education professor who helped quash an Edison bid in Houston. Others worry that in five years, Dallas will realize it was snookered into accepting another dubious educational fad.

"In their best cases, they [Edison] do about the same as public schools, and in their worst cases, much worse," says Roy Kemble, president of Classroom Teachers of Dallas, which is affiliated with the National Education Association.

But DISD's leader tells us not to fear.

"Whoa, it's privatization," says new superintendent and chief Edison patron Waldemar Rojas, mocking critics who worry about the implications of for-profit schooling. He believes DISD will benefit by learning from Edison's research-based design and touts Edison's commitment to put $30 million into Dallas schools right away.

"Edison is a way of extending service that we haven't been able to extend under the desegregation [decree affecting DISD]," he claims.

Meanwhile, free-market hawks tout Edison as a way to cut government bloat and deliver better education. But one Dallas official is heeding Sherman's warning of the expensive hidden costs of an added layer of management. Hollis Brashear, a Dallas school trustee who opposed the contract, wants to preempt a possible shakedown by reducing Edison's $5,715 per-pupil stipend in Dallas (which adds up to about $50 million a year). DISD, he points out, must still pay for transportation, food services, security, and other costs at future Edison schools.

"Edison claims they can do it for the same money, but they're not getting the same money," he says. "They're getting more."

Rojas isn't particularly worried. "I know it's going to cost more money," he admits during an interview with the Dallas Observer. "I see a district that can learn from that research and development focus."

Indeed, optimism reigns as Dallas prepares to privatize. The decision by the Dallas school district's board of trustees to hire Edison is Rojas' first major achievement at DISD's helm, but shenanigans in sealing the deal left him under a cloud. After trustees nixed his first attempt to deliver 11 schools to Edison by a vote of 5-3, he succeeded on November 18 in winning a smaller plan to Edisonize six schools. But victory came only after a bizarre interlude during which Rojas outdid the homegrown enfants terribles of Dallas politics.

After trustees shot down the first Edison plan, Rojas fought back by leveling apparently baseless allegations against Brashear and Lois Parrott, two trustees who voted against the plan ("Da thug," November 18). He alleged they had committed criminal and ethical violations in their votes, accusing Brashear of micromanaging his efforts to improve the district and Parrott of attempting to sell her vote in exchange for a friend's promotion. He vowed to press for investigations of both, but pressed only his allegation against Parrott with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

They were very serious and damaging charges, and they didn't hold up. Once the smoke cleared and no cause for investigation was found, it turned out Brashear merely sought to get the board to examine the company's lackluster record in nearby Sherman -- hardly a crime by any stretch. Rojas' second accusation was perhaps his bigger embarrassment. Parrott had earlier asked Rojas to promote a friend to a public relations post, but there's no evidence she ever tried to broker a quid pro quo for her vote.

Then there was the now infamous press conference at the beginning of November, when an incensed Rojas belittled Brashear and Parrott by holding out two tin cups with the trustees' names on them. He said since they scuttled his Edison plan in a 5-3 vote, they should panhandle to make up for Edison's promised $30 million in up-front investment. Rojas later apologized to Brashear and Parrott. His mea culpa allowed Edison supporters to regroup and find two more votes. Three weeks later, a divided board voted 5-4 to pass the slightly smaller outsourcing plan. Trustee Ron Price, who abstained from voting the first time, voted for Edison, while Kathleen Leos, citing the deal's smaller size and an agreement to conduct quarterly reports on Edison's progress, changed her vote.

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