In 1998, Edison Schools Inc., the country's leading for-profit school management company, took over one of San Francisco's worst schools, coincidentally named Thomas Edison Elementary. By its third year, the K�5 school, now renamed Edison Charter Academy, was on the way up. Its once rock-bottom test scores had risen in every grade and every subject for every racial/ethnic group. Black and Latino students, who make up 83 percent of enrollment, had made the greatest gains. Violence was down. Enrollment was up. Parents were enthusiastic.
"I like it," says Karen Aldana, who graduated from Edison Charter's fifth grade in June. She enjoyed the "Success for All" reading program and the charter school's "specials," music, art, Spanish, and physical education (P.E.) "She can read perfectly in English and Spanish," says her mother proudly.
"It's so clearly working,'' says Allegra Harrison, whose daughter is an Edison Charter third grader. Not everyone agreed. In January 2001, halfway through the company's five-year contract, the San Francisco school board launched a campaign to revoke the charter and take back the school. Board president Jill Wynns, who told the press she's "philosophically opposed to for-profit management," was supported by two newly elected trustees, Mark Sanchez, who taught at Thomas Edison in the pre-charter days, and Eric Mar, a lawyer and ethnic studies lecturer at San Francisco State whose wife is active in the local teachers union.
Six months later, however, the board backed down. Edison Schools Inc. now runs the school under a charter from the State Board of Education.
The Battle of Edison Charter turned on competing ideas about accountability. To its enemies, Edison Charter Academy wasn't accountable to the public -- that is, to the elected school board -- but rather to corporate execs in New York City and the company's stockholders. But most people want schools held accountable for their performance, and that is what the school board failed to understand. Edison Charter Academy survived because it had higher test scores and satisfied parents.
Although its school-board critics thought they were mounting an attack on corporate interests, they instead found themselves battling parents. More than 80 percent of those parents signed a petition supporting Edison Charter when it came under attack. In such a face-off, not even the teachers union would side with the board. It was a battle, in other words, between education and a school board's ideology. This time, education won. This is the story of that struggle.
San Francisco's school board oversees a district with dramatic inequities between its best and worst schools, and an enrollment scheme that strongly favors savvy parents who know how to work the system to get their kids into the good schools. That means that the city's bad schools only get worse as they become dumping grounds for the most difficult students.
The board's finances are such a mess that state legislators have threatened to place the district under state receivership. In May, an audit by the Andersen accounting firm found that, since 1997, $30 million earmarked for school construction had been spent improperly on salaries. The San Francisco Chronicle uncovered records showing $60 million in construction bonds diverted to salaries since 1989. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman announced an FBI investigation into the district's handling of a $50 million federal technology grant and a $32 million energy-savings contract.
Given all the problems in the San Francisco Unified School District, why did the school board pick a fight with Edison? In part, it was about money. In 1998, a flamboyant, free-spending superintendent named Bill Rojas had pushed the charter through, shortly afterward decamping for Dallas. (Rojas now works for Advantage Schools, an Edison competitor.) Wynns thought Rojas had given Edison a sweetheart contract that failed to charge the corporation for busing, rent on the school, or administrative services, such as passing through federal and state funding and handling payroll. She claimed the Edison deal was costing the district $1,000 a student. (A charter elementary in a rent-free school typically pays the district 3 percent of its revenues -- $125 to $180 per student -- to cover administrative and building costs.) Yet at the same time, Edison's critics were complaining that the corporation was putting too much money into the school. With donations and stockholders' money, the company was able to fund extras -- music, art, Spanish, P.E., technology, a longer school day -- that other city elementary students don't get. It wasn't fair.
Ultimately, the school board kept coming back to intangible reasons for revoking the charter. "I am absolutely thinking about what's best for kids and parents at Edison," Wynns said in January when she announced her crusade to revoke the contract. "I truly believe that Edison has damaged our sense of cohesiveness about public education. This has fractured our community."
But Edison Charter principal Vincent Matthews questioned the board's motives. "Is their bottom line ideology or student achievement?'' The school's parents believe they know what's best for their own kids. The problem with Edison Charter, they say, is not that it's not educating Latino and black children. It's that it's educating them too well. According to them, San Francisco Unified can't stand to see a corporation succeed at a school where the district failed for so many years.
"What are they really afraid of?" asks Lupe Hernandez, parent of a second grader. "That the success will continue? That people will find out about it?" Hernandez chose Edison Charter for its curriculum, longer day, and uniforms; she also wanted her son taught in English, but with the chance to develop his Spanish in World Languages class. Despite his Attention Deficit Disorder, her son learned to read in kindergarten and now reads above grade level. "It has been nice to see how far he can go," she says.
Hernandez looked at private school alternatives when the board threatened to revoke Edison's charter and take back the school. To get the same quality at a private or parochial school would cost her $7,000 a year, she says.
Robyn Amos, a high school teacher in a neighboring district, was impressed by the challenging curriculum, engaged students, and community spirit. Teachers are willing to work with difficult students, says Amos, who is black. Her fourth grader is now on track in reading, after falling behind at her old school. "I see sparks now," says Amos. "It's happening for her."
Heather Mobley praises the quarterly meetings in which parent, student, and teacher agree on shared objectives. "I'm a business person," says Mobley, who works in marketing. "This is how you track progress." She doesn't care if Edison makes a profit. "If I'm getting everything I dreamed of for my children, why would I care if they're able to return a profit to their shareholders?"