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Edison on the ropes in Baltimore; Is Philly far behind?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last Sunday, The Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore School District may sever contracts with two of three schools run by the former Edison Schools Inc. (now Edison Learning).

[Update: The district voted to end Edison’s contract for the two schools March 24, the Sun reports – The Editors]

The concerns of School Chief Andres Alonso should sound familiar to those of us here:

"These are two schools that are really struggling," said Laura Weeldreyer, Alonso’s deputy chief of staff. "We’ve made a big investment in them, and we have yet to see the payoff."

According to The Sun, the Baltimore Schools cites the following:

  • Since 2000, Edison has had a contract to run three low-performing elementary schools, serving 1,800 students and today worth $16.9 million a year.
  • Edison appears to get an extra $500 per student, which includes a 12% overhead cost and extra funds for technology and pre-K. In addition, it outsouces special education.
  • Math scores at the two targeted schools declined last year with passing rates of 50% and 34%.
  • Two years ago, teacher turnover at the schools hit 75% largely due to contract uncertainty, according to Edison officials.
  • A 2005 report by a non-profit foundation found that the three schools made progress but the cost exceeded that of other city schools which had greater jumps in test scores.

For anyone who’s been following Philadelphia’s experience with Edison – or for that matter anywhere in the nation where Edison has lost contracts – this reads textbook for the reasons districts are fleeing a company once touted as the savior of public education.

What’s interesting to note is Edison’s dramatic decline ever since it received its 2002 Philadelphia contract. In 2001, when Edison first arrived at Philadelphia’s doorstep, it boasted of being the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools with more than 100 individual schools and dozens of school districts on its client list. Ironically, in its sell to Philadelphia, it pointed to Baltimore as a model of its ability to turn around struggling urban schools.

Although Edison eventually became the biggest beneficiary of the “diverse provider model” touted by the School Reform Commission, it’s important to remember some history here. The fight to privatize the Philadelphia public schools severely tarnished the Edison brand. Edison had initially proposed to manage the entire school district of Philadelphia. An unprecedented wave of community activism challenged that proposal and made international headlines. The end result – where Edison was knocked back to managing 20 schools – crushed Wall Street expectations. Edison’s stock plummeted to pennies a share and the company took itself private through a buyout by the Florida teachers union pension fund.

Fast forward to 2009: Edison, by my count, has maybe 62 schools to its name. Edison Schools Inc. in fact doesn’t even exist any more. Two years ago, it remade itself into Edison Learning, offering on-line education as school contracts began falling.

Today Philadelphia is pivotal to Edison’s outdated business. With 15 Edison schools under contract, Philadelphia comprises almost one-fourth of Edison’s total and has more contracts than any district in the country. Things could change though. Last year, Philadelphia Schools CEO Arlene Ackerman severed four Edison contracts and put another 12 on a one-year “probation” list. Those dozen schools have their contracts up for renewal this spring.

The lessons of Edison Schools ought to post a cautionary tale – now more than ever. School district after school district in this country has found that experimenting with Edison has cost too much money, bought too few results, and lost too much time.

There are other lessons too: There is no silver bullet to the deep problems of our public schools. Practical reality trumps ideology. By and large, despite the serious problems we face, there is no reliable evidence that public schools are outperformed by the for-profit, non-profit and charter models that exist.

Of course, there are significant problems within our schools, and of course success stories exist outside the public school structure. But what our schools need today is less outsourcing and more application of the innovations and best practices that successful charters and other schools have demonstrated works.

This spring the District will reconsider those Edison contracts. It is also planning to launch yet another outsourcing experiment for its most problematic schools through the Rennaissance Schools plan. History has been clear on how many such experiments have fared – particularly when the District has poor oversight and doesn’t engage with community members. Let’s see how well the District retains the lessons of that history.

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