LIGHTS OUT FOR EDISON

by Esther Kaplan

PSCcuny
NEWS BULLETIN

APRIL 2001

 

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For a few weeks in March, a fight over school privatization made headlines in New York City. Edison Schools, Inc., the nation's largest private operator of public schools, with 113 schools and counting, was at first heavily favored to win. But parents at the five schools slated for takeover dealt the company a knockout blow, voting Edison down at all five schools by an overall margin of 4 to 1.

The five primary schools and junior highs that Schools Chancellor Harold Levy had targeted for private management were all in working-class, immigrant-heavy black or Latino neighborhoods—Crown Heights, the South Bronx, Bushwick and Harlem—and all had been listed as failing schools for at least two years. Though charter law requires approval by a majority of parents for conversion, an Edison victory was touted as a sure thing: the parents were seen as either too apathetic to care or too desperate to forgo a change—any change. When the results were announced on April 2, the mayor sputtered like a bettor who’d just been betrayed on an inside tip.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has argued for privatization as a solution for many of the city’s problems. The public schools were an early target: first, his program to place poor kids in Catholic schools in 1997; then his unsuccessful 1999 battle for publicly funded vouchers. But higher education was not far behind. In May 1998, the mayor packed his CUNY task force with privatization backers such as Heather MacDonald, Richard Roberts and Benno Schmidt, now a CUNY trustee. While the Commission’s report did not call for fully privatizing remediation, as Giuliani had proposed, it did advocate partial privatization "to stimulate competition." These same players reemerged as part of the formidable force behind Edison.

Schmidt is Edison’s chairman of the board. Richard Roberts was a consultant for Edison before he took over the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. And MacDonald is a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, which has been stumping for Edison for years.

Edison CEO Chris Whittle (the founder of Channel One, the firm that brings television news—and ads—to 8 million schoolchildren) was highly conscious of New York’s symbolism for his growing company: "These are going to be five of the most watched schools in America," he said in January. "Failure is not an option here." Edison spared no expense, flooding the streets with 200 staffers and volunteers. Whittle made the Harlem school, I.S. 161, a top priority, saying in January that "Benno is heading up that very important project for us"—though in the end Schmidt left most of the front-line advocacy to others.

So how did Edison lose? It didn’t hurt that the powerful United Federation of Teachers got involved, distributing anti-Edison literature through teachers at contested schools in Harlem and Crown Heights. Or that community organizing powerhouse ACORN, which runs alternative public schools of its own, had anti-Edison organizers knocking on doors in Crown Heights. But those efforts bore fruit because Levy’s decision to try his privatization experiment on poor students of color had struck a chord, angering both community leaders and a quiescent parent electorate. At a March 24 anti-Edison rally at I.S. 161, City Council member Guillermo Linares asked the crowd, "Why do they always come to our communities to rape us, privatize our schools, and take away our dignity and our future?" Says Crown Heights school board member Agnes Green, "We didn’t like the idea of taking an institution that is there to serve the public and changing it into a for-profit company. If they don’t make money, they can just cut bait and leave the fishing pond—and that’s too large a gamble."

An astonishing display of grassroots activism unfolded on 135th Street, spearheaded by brothers John and Carlos Perez, who each have kids at 161—and went there themselves. The parents, John Perez says, were offended that when Edison first came to the school, all of their handouts were in English—"that right there was a slap in the face"—but they became even more concerned when parental research uncovered Edison’s dubious track record. Though the city’s many columnists were happy to assume, as voucher proponent John Tierney did in the Times, that Edison would "do a better job of educating children," the only independent study so far, conducted by the AFT, found that Edison’s teacher turnover rate was double the national average, and that most Edison math and reading scores showed no change or mild to substantial declines. Most disturbing, the AFT found that many schools showed a drop in free-lunch students after Edison’s takeover, a sign of possible class bias in admissions.

"From what they’ve been able to pull at the university level, folks like Benno thought this would be a romp," says ACORN head Bertha Lewis. "But they miscalculated." And the Edison loss hurt major stockholders like Schmidt personally, as well. While Edison stock spiked to a high of 383¼4 in early February, despite a bear market, by time the vote was over the stock had plunged to 201¼4. A March 20 SEC filing, in connection with a new public offering by Edison, stated that Schmidt owned 1,148,150 shares of the company’s stock. This means that losing the parent vote may have cost Schmidt more than $20 million.

Schmidt’s central role with Edison may well have hurt the company’s chances of winning community support. "The minority community, backed by the Faculty Senate at CUNY, were opposed and incensed by the [1999] report authored by Benno Schmidt," Merryl Tisch, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, told the New York Observer. Schmidt’s role was seen by many as an "insult," she said. City College is close to I.S. 161 (and to Edison’s future corporate headquarters in Harlem), and its student government co-sponsored the March 24 protest. Anti-Edison buttons popped up on campus as the vote drew near.

Columnists and editorial boards took the no vote and the 50 percent turnout as a sign of parent apathy or worse. Several commentators concluded, in essence, that the parents were just too dumb to be trusted with democracy. Levy "could have handed the schools to Edison by contract," moaned the Daily News (April 11). "Why was a vote even held?" Giuliani demanded that Levy do exactly that, for 20 schools, the day after the voting ended. But that would violate the state’s charter law, and Levy told the News that in any case, "Privatization without parental support is doomed to failure." (April 1).

In fact, once the vote was finished Levy had a positive spin. He compared the 50 percent turnout to the 3.3 percent turnout for the last school board race, saying, "The result today indicates that many parents have a real sense of hope for their schools. I ask that all of those involved in the election come to the table to discuss real initiatives to improve student performance." This time, his call may be answered.

Perez says Edison "woke up the community." He describes with glee the moment he walked into his alma mater with the election results—495 to 88: "The kids at the school were yelling, ‘We won! We won!’ The teachers all started clapping. The morale is so high now, everything’s going to be different." At that anti-Edison rally a week before, Jeanne Ollivierre, an adjunct professor at the City College School of Education who’s placed teachers in training at 161 for 15 years, had already begun to channel her anger over Edison’s "disrespect for the community" into a vision: What if City College began a formal collaboration with the school? Brooklyn parents have speculated about linking up with Medgar Evers, too.

But school privatization isn’t over for New York City yet. When asked whether he’d give the city another go, Edison CEO Whittle said, "We’ve worked through similar legal issues elsewhere. If there’s a will, I bet there will be a way." And during the final days of the Edison vote, CUNY chairman Herman Badillo proposed a new privatization scheme: turning over the University’s remedial reading exam to a private firm.

 

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