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

In winning passage of his initiative, Rojas made history for privatizing six schools, a first for both Edison and an American school district. Kansas City, Missouri, held the previous record of five Edison schools.

Why is Rojas sold on Edison? For starters, he likes Edison's extended school day and year, which he says fit nine years of regular school time into seven years (research is inconclusive on whether logistical tinkering improves achievement). Children in Dallas schools, where budget cuts have hurt arts and music programs, he says, will get cultural enrichment every day with Edison. Moreover, he predicts children will benefit from Edison's strong technology focus and unique curricular design, including its research-based math and reading programs.

"The concepts they have are major areas of weakness that you find in urban areas," he insists.

Dallas schools trustee Hollis Brashear fought to keep Edison out of DISD, only to incur Rojas' wrath.
Martin Menocal
Dallas schools trustee Hollis Brashear fought to keep Edison out of DISD, only to incur Rojas' wrath.

Edison relies on the popular Success For All reading program, which emphasizes phonics and comprehension. It also uses the well-regarded (at least by the U.S. Department of Education) Chicago Math program, which eschews math drills for problem-solving skills. Still, DISD doesn't need Edison to bring in these programs.

"It's basically off-the-shelf stuff that any school could do," says Henry Levin, an economist who directs the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City. "I don't see a revolution here."

Another motive for Rojas: The contract allows him to lock in reforms for five years, a rare feat for transient school chiefs. "In a normal public school, you may only have a reform effort for two years," says F. Howard Nelson, an American Federation of Teachers researcher.

Meanwhile, the AFT-aligned Alliance of Dallas Educators has "put its faith" in Rojas to manage the Edison contract, but vows to keep a close eye on the company, said longtime president Harley Hiscox. A recent letter from the group's second-in-command extolled Edison's unusual focus on music, art, Spanish, and physical education, as well as the reading and math programs. In a November 18 letter to The Dallas Morning News, ADE vice president Aimee Bolender said Edison should serve as a "pilot" to kick off community conversation on education reform. "This dialogue is much needed, but we must get past the talking stage and into the action stage if we hope to affect the lives of kids," she wrote.

DISD, Hiscox adds, should learn enlughfrom the company to eventually create its own "Edisons." But this well-meaning argument raises a crucial point: Is it necessary to privatize schools to "send a message" to the community?

Talk of fabulous programs aside, it's implementation that counts -- a point glossed over in Dallas' often mean-spirited debate over Edison's merits. Qualified principals and teachers are needed to staff Edison schools, and teachers need sufficient training, especially in skill-intensive programs such as Success For All. According to the AFT report, Edison has botched the job of staffing Success For All in many schools. In fact, AFT says, a well-staffed Success For All school performs better than the average Edison School. (Edison officials call AFT's finding "outrageous" and deem the data flawed.)

In addition, the company is renowned for hiring young teachers and teachers without professional degrees as a cost-cutting strategy. High turnover exacerbates Edison's disconnect between design and implementation: In 1998, about 23 percent of teachers at Edison schools departed, according to company figures, a rate twice as high as the national average.

"What is it about the Edison management that makes teachers unable to do their jobs?" wonders Jennifer Morales, a researcher with the Milwaukee-based Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education.

Edison is no stranger to bad press, although its for-profit status makes it an easy mark. In Miami, a media frenzy ensued last year when one teacher was accused of repeatedly beating students with a stick. In Boston, researchers charged that two Edison charter schools "counseled out" large numbers of special-education students, who are generally more expensive to educate. Edison's Minneapolis school reportedly lost 75 percent of its original teachers last fall, while some administrators in Duluth, Minnesota, claimed Edison's three local charter schools have drained funds from other schools (Duluth recently renewed its contracts with the company).

In San Francisco, Rojas' roost for seven years before arriving in Dallas, the outsourcing of one school was enough to galvanize voters in 1998 to throw out several incumbents in electing an anti-Edison school board. The people's mandate: rein in Rojas, seen as an autocrat in his decision-making. By June of last year, the new board, which also questioned Rojas' handling of the district's finances, forced him to resign his post. The shake-up embodied fears that privatizing one school was the first step in dismantling public education, a process activists fear will heighten inequality in society.

The Edison decision could cause a similar backlash in Dallas. Denigration of critics, obfuscation of issues, and the well-honed Edison tactic of quickly ramming the deal through the process were the tools used to subvert public debate. Will Dallas voters, less prone to leftist social critique than liberal San Francisco dwellers, rise up to expel pro-Edison trustees?

Sherman ISD's Philip Garrett does allow one word of praise for Edison. In his opinion, the company's arrival speeded the district's reform effort by sending "a signal to the whole community that things were going to be different." He recited a list of recent improvements to the town's schools, including new academic standards, high-speed Internet access, e-mail accounts for every student and employee down to bus drivers and custodians, and renovations at all buildings.

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