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Project Will Try to Light Way to Reform : Private firm to run three public schools in Massachusetts. Accent is on experimentation.

March 30, 1994|JEAN MERL | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The promise of a nationwide string of high-quality, moderately priced private schools that would light the way to education reform while turning a profit is on indefinite hold.

But architects of media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle's Edison Project still are betting they can deliver significantly improved schools and, eventually, make money at it. Three years after launching its plan to compete with public schools, Knoxville-based Whittle Communications is celebrating its first "partnership" with them.

Earlier this month, the Edison Project (named for the inventor who created the light bulb instead of merely improving the candle) was chosen to design and run three new public schools in Massachusetts. The state's new "charter" schools program will give Edison Project designers the opportunity to try the ideas they have been working on for more than a year and a half.

The Edison schools in Boston, Lowell and Worcester--which the company expects to open in 1995 for elementary grades and operate in partnership with local political, education and civic leaders--will feature rigorous academics, a longer instructional day, an extended school year, an emphasis on ethics and values and a big role for parents.

There also will be an emphasis on technology, including a promise by company officials to put a computer into every student's home. Faculties will include several beginning teachers who will work in teams led by an experienced colleague. Students will stay with the same teams of teachers for two or three years.

Company officials expect initially to invest around $2 million per school on top of what the state will provide.

Benno C. Schmidt, who left the presidency of Yale University to lead the Edison Project venture, said project designers knitted together the best ideas from reform efforts around the world.

"No single element will strike you as something you've never heard or thought of before," Schmidt told a recent Senate subcommittee hearing. "Ours are schools whose essential features are being tried somewhere and, when you get right down to it, are pretty self-evident."

Massachusetts' choice of the Whittle group, along with 12 nonprofit organizations for other schools, reflects a growing willingness across the nation to experiment with alternatives to highly regulated public schools, including allowing private organizations to run them.

Several other states, including California, are experimenting with charter schools, which basically turn over funding and responsibility for a public school to a group that is freed of most state and local regulations in return for its promise of providing a good-quality alternative.

Generally, the contracts to run the schools are for a period of a few years, during which the operators must show they are getting results.

The charter schools movement has gathered steam in the last two to three years, a compromise between those who want to provide tax-dollar vouchers to help parents pay for private schools and those who favor the status quo in overseeing public schools.

At the same time, some reformers are calling for a larger role for private firms, based on their belief that entrepreneurs can cut through bureaucracy and get faster results.

Turning schools over to private operators has drawn its share of criticism. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a vocal skeptic of the trend, said there is virtually no evidence private firms can do a better job with public schools.

But the timing is good for Whittle, whose problems in raising capital forced a hold on his original, highly publicized plan--to build a state-of-the-art chain of profitable private schools with tuitions roughly equal to the per-pupil spending of local public campuses.

Edison officials also have applied to operate five schools in Virginia and are aggressively seeking contracts with districts around the United States to run existing campuses.

Their quest puts them into head-to-head competition with the pioneering Education Alternatives Inc., a Minnesota-based, for-profit firm that has been running public schools in Baltimore and Miami and is expanding into other cities.

Schmidt said private operators and charter schools are ideas whose time has come: "The country is ready for at least some of its public schools to be really different."

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