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... and punishing it

National | Edison schools in New York and San Francisco face the wrath of teachers unions and liberal activists

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

Turning around big-city schools that once failed to educate poor minority children would seem to merit the thanks of a grateful nation. But in San Francisco and New York City, the success of Edison Schools has prompted the educational establishment to try to drive them out of town.

One of the great discoveries of state and local governments over the last few decades has been privatization. Services provided by the government-garbage pickup, janitorial and food service for public buildings, job-training programs-began to be farmed out to private contractors. It turned out that the private sector could do these jobs cheaper and better. Many states went so far as to privatize their prisons. It was thus a small step to consider privatizing schools.

Edison Schools was organized as a for-profit corporation. Taking advantage of charter school laws, which permit certain schools to operate independently of regular bureaucracies, Edison subcontracts with school boards to operate particular public schools. Edison hires and trains its own teachers, implements its own curriculum, and sets its own policies. These schools feature a longer school day (a full eight hours, two hours longer than most schools) and a longer school year (198 days, compared to the national average of 180 days). Over a

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K-12 educational career, this amounts to some four extra years of classroom instruction!

The curriculum is reading-intensive-using phonics, direct instruction, and literature-and features rigorous testing and remediation. A hallmark of Edison schools is their use of technology. Edison gives parents a computer for their child to use at home. This also enables the parents to stay informed about their child's progress by tapping into the school's information network.

Edison now operates 113 schools, enrolling 57,000 students. Of these students, 65 percent are economically disadvantaged. Though tackling some of the hardest cases in education, Edison has improved performance-sometimes dramatically-in 85 percent of the schools it has taken on.

So what thanks does Edison get? In New York City, teachers unions and left-wing activists rammed through a parents' election that halted plans to turn over five of the city's failed schools to Edison. And in San Francisco, the newly elected liberal school board is trying to cancel Edison's contract.

This, despite the fact that in only two years, test scores on California's Academic Performance Index shot up 25 percent for the school's African-American students, the biggest gain for any school in San Francisco. "At every grade level, in every subject, for every ethnic group, the improvements have been impressive, in some cases astonishing," said Joan Walsh, news editor of the liberal webzine Salon.

She quoted Principal Vince Matthews: "The fact is, it's really a miracle. Nobody's ever seen anything like this before. Instead of trying to learn from it, the district is trying to shut it down. You have a school that's never worked for African-American and Latino kids, and now it is, and the district wants to take it away from them."

Why? School Board President Jill Wynns says that she and other opponents are "philosophically opposed to for-profit management" of schools.

The philosophy that considers "profit," "corporation," and "business" bad words is rampant among liberals. The irony is that Edison has never shown a profit, losing $36 million last year. It has, though, put more money in the hands of local governments. Edison receives $4,200 per pupil, while district-run schools in San Francisco get as much as $7,000. Yet, as Ms. Walsh observed, "The many millions of dollars the district poured into failing schools ... did not create one single school that showed the rapid achievement gains Edison has."

Maybe educational philosophy has something to do with the opposition. New statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 32 percent of the nation's fourth-graders are proficient in reading, a percentage that has remained about the same over the last eight years. One expert on child development expressed his exasperation that while research has demonstrated what works in teaching reading, the educational establishment refuses to take advantage of it. "The frustration is, what we know is not being implemented," said Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Phonics works. So does direct instruction, in which a teacher follows a script to systematically drill students in language and math skills. And yet, many teachers and curriculum writers reject them. They think such methods, both of which are used in Edison schools, are not creative enough. But who is going to be more creative, a child kept illiterate by his teacher's ideology, or a child who has been taught to read?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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