Threatened by Success

One charter school's fight against the education establishment.


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?"

The Charter Revolution

Charter schools are tax-funded, tuition-free public schools with some of the freedoms of private schools. Instead of regulating how charters teach, states are supposed to judge by results: Are students learning?

The first charter school opened in 1992 in Minnesota. Now, more than 2,000 charter schools are educating half a million students in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Most are started by teachers, parents, universities, community groups, and other nonprofits.

Typically, these schools are underfunded, thin on management, and dependent on donated legal services. However, about 10 percent are run by school management companies that are—in theory, if not in fact—for-profit businesses. They are run by professional managers, staffed by lawyers, and much harder to bully. Their pitch is simple: If we succeed in running good schools, we'll attract students and make a profit. If we fail, take back the school and try something else. That's not the way things are usually done in the public school system. Traditionally, nothing succeeds like failure. Failure is rewarded with more money for more programs, more specialists, and, of course, more failure. Success, on the other hand, is a risky business. It destroys excuses. It raises expectations. It's even worse when a profit-seeking business succeeds with high-risk students. If customer-serving, bottom-line-adding businesses can run schools, that opens the door to a host of market evils: Independently run charter schools staffed by non-unionized teachers. Voucher-empowered parents shopping for their schools of choice. Teachers deprived of political power and turned from selfless public servants to soulless corporate employees.

In many cities, school officials have given up on improving schools that serve large numbers of low-income minority students from troubled families. If school districts really are held accountable for results, they'll be motivated to turn over their no-hope schools to outside management. If scores remain low, it's the charter's fault. If scores rise, the board can take credit for bringing in new management.

In the short run, it's a low-risk strategy. In the long run, it's a significant threat to public education as we know it. If corporate profit-seekers can out-educate the educators, why not privatize the whole system? Pennsylvania, planning to take over the troubled Philadelphia schools, hired Edison to analyze the district's academic and financial chaos. Edison came back with a bold proposal to take over management of the district itself, handing the lowest-performing schools to private managers, including Edison and its competitors.

For-profit education is a $100 billion industry, says Michael Sandler of eduventure.com, which analyzes the education sector. That includes companies that supply books, desks, crayons, and computers, as well as firms that offer distance-learning systems, tutoring, and counseling services. School management companies are the most controversial, because they're in direct competition with public school bureaucracies.

When the Education Industry Leadership Board, a new industry advocacy group led by Sandler, met with Education Department officials, the talk was about measuring results, says program director Lenore Ealy. "They want proof, proof, proof. Show us you're improving performance."

While school management companies remain a small force in public education, they're growing rapidly thanks to the charter school movement. Edison runs 113 public schools in 45 cities, contracting with local districts to take over failing schools or to set up charters. The company says it can create efficiencies by centralizing business services, curriculum design, and teacher training, eventually turning a profit. Also in the business are Mosaica Schools, National Heritage Academies, LearnNow, Advantage Schools Inc., Bea-con Management, The Tesseract Group, Sabis Educational Systems, The Leona Group, and Charter Schools USA.

Some offer a structured curriculum, using programs such as Success for All reading, Core Knowledge, and Direct Instruction. Others lean to the progressive side of education, promising lots of hands-on, thematic learning. A few companies let each school develop its own style. Most offer a longer school day and year, which raises costs; they often hire lots of young—often uncredentialed—teachers, which is cheaper.

Test results for Edison-run schools are mixed; in some cities, there's little evidence Edison is outperforming its district-run competition. However, the company's school design gets high marks from educators. A study by Columbia University's Teacher's College, done for the National Education Association (NEA), praised the company for investing in teacher training and holding schools accountable. "The cohesiveness of the curriculum, the quality of the curriculum, and the breadth of the curriculum gives [sic] teachers (including experienced teachers) a set of guidelines, activities, and assessments upon which they can rely," the report said. "The classroom culture promotes learning….Most Edison schools are safe, orderly and energized, although some of the schools are experiencing difficulty in implementing the Edison design because of its complexity."

The report, presented to the NEA in December 2000, urged the teachers union to "take an active role regarding future collaborations with for-profit companies by creating a set of criteria that will guarantee quality and ensure that all children receive a just and productive education." In other words, if you can't beat 'em, coopt 'em.

The School Board Strikes Back

Whether the unions take the advice remains to be seen. However, in San Francisco, the California Teachers Association sat out the fight to revoke the Edison charter, points out Gary Larson, who volunteered to help Parents To Save Edison Charter. Edison Charter parents and children turned out in force at school board meetings. "The unions don't want to take on the parents," says Larson, now information director for the California Network of Educational Charters.

Opponents will fight fiercely to keep a for-profit school from opening. Unions allied with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a community organizing group, to keep Edison from taking over five failing schools in Harlem. After a bitter campaign, parents overwhelmingly rejected Edison. They preferred the fifth-rate schools they knew to a vague promise of something better. According to Larson, ACORN's attack on "privatization" led some parents to believe they'd have to pay tuition if Edison ran the schools.

But once a school has evidence of improvement and a militant parents' group, only the true believers are willing to fight. In San Francisco, a union town with left-liberal leadership, the school board's anti-privatization campaign drew surprisingly little support. Its charge that Edison Charter was pushing out poor black students fizzled. The black community seemed more interested in starting its own charters than in helping the board close one down.

The corporation's PR effort was simple: Keep talking about the test scores. Stories in the Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Francisco?based Salon magazine stressed the school's rising test scores and satisfied parents. So did a New York Times story. Editorials in local newspapers backed the charter. The Examiner called the board's campaign "bizarre" and "surreal." The Wall Street Journal and The Economist attacked the school board as anti-privatization zealots.

The board's allies came primarily from Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a "progressive" nonprofit devoted to children's services, and from a small number of parents convinced that Edison Charter was competing unfairly with district-run schools and getting more public money than their own children's schools.

Caroline Grannan, a parent in the district and a Wynns supporter, fired off letters and e-mails accusing Edison of manipulating test scores, underplaying costs, and selecting its students. Traditional public schools look bad in comparison to choice schools because they're stuck with the children of apathetic parents, Grannan argues. "This hit me two years ago, when my son was in a third-grade class with five students (25 percent of the class)—all boys, all ethnicities—that no private school would ever have allowed across its threshold under any circumstances."

But, as parent Linda Gausman notes bitterly, Edison Charter's critics don't have kids at third-rate schools. "They're predominately white women with children at white-Asian schools." Gausman's daughter, who is black, was assigned to a school where crack addicts and prostitutes lounged outside.

Teachers inside had to buy supplies with their own money, says Gausman.

By second grade, the girl had fallen behind in reading. Gausman had tried for two years to get a transfer—she tried Grannan's elementary school—but found all the desirable public schools have long wait lists. She was delighted to find a spot at Edison Charter. "I've seen such growth in her," she says of her child, now entering fifth grade. "I started seeing a can-do attitude."

In March, school-board trustees said they'd revoke the charter but keep Edison Charter's principal, staff, and curriculum—with some compromises and cuts. None of the parents believed it. Says Mobley, whose children are in third and fifth grades at Edison Charter, the real message to parents was, "We want to return you to the failure of the past."

The Rebirth of Thomas Edison

Before the Edison takeover, Thomas Edison Elementary was San Francisco's unchoice school. It was the place for kids whose parents, stumped by the district's byzantine enrollment system, had failed to choose something better. Disruptive students "counseled out"—that is, pushed out—of their original schools were dumped at Thomas Edison. White middle-class parents from neighboring Noe Valley abandoned the school. Most of the students were—and still are—Latino immigrants from the nearby Mission, along with black students bused in from low-income Bayview-Hunter's Point.

In the 1980s, the school was cited in a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawsuit charging that minority students were getting an unequal education. Twice in the 1980s and 1990s, San Francisco Unified "reconstituted" the school—replacing the principal and teachers. It didn't help. Students fought in the classrooms and washrooms, roamed the hallways and wandered the neighborhood. Evaluators noted that reading and math scores were abysmal, even compared to other schools with poor black and Hispanic students. Scores continued to drop at Thomas Edison while other city elementary schools were improving.

Ken Romines, principal from 1993 to 1995, described Thomas Edison as an "academic pariah" in his 1997 book, A Principal's Story. There was no reading program. The average fifth grader read at a second grade level.

Each year of his two-year stint, 50 percent to 70 percent of teachers quit.

In 1997, an outside evaluator, Stanley A. Schainker, called Thomas Edison "educationally bankrupt," with the lowest test scores in the city. It was, wrote Schainker, "the most dysfunctional elementary school that I have seen in my 35 years in education." In the 1997?98 school year, Thomas Edison went through four principals. A Chronicle story noted how the survivor, Barbara Karvelis, dealt with the chaos. She "sent children with severe discipline problems to other schools."

That was when Rojas, then the school superintendent, cut a deal to hand over the school to Edison Schools Inc. Karvelis stayed on as principal. The company got a rent-free building, $4,200 per student from the state, plus federal and state grants for low-performing, low-income, and non?English-speaking students. Don Fisher, a San Francisco businessman and philanthropist, promised $1.5 million to refurbish the school and fund technology.

As Edison Charter Academy, the school offers a longer day and year and a structured academic curriculum, including Success for All, a national reading program used in all Edison Inc. elementary schools. All students take Spanish, taught as a foreign language. Students in third grade and up get a laptop to take home. Teachers spend two periods a day meeting with colleagues to discuss improving teaching. They meet every few months with parents.

In 1999, Schainker returned for another visit. His report, part of a Teacher's College at Columbia University study of Edison's schools, was laudatory: "Parents appear happy with the school's turnaround. After all, they must feel a sense of jubilation to have their children in a safe school rather than in a chaotic environment where real danger was ever present."

The transition was bumpy. Most of the teachers quit in the first two years, complaining of the longer hours, the scripted reading curriculum, the frequent meetings, and the pressure to show results.

Edison Inc. responded by replacing the unpopular Karvelis and offering a 10 percent raise. The current principal, Vince Matthews, is praised by parents, teachers, and even school board members. Teacher turnover is down sharply: 70 percent of teachers returned in the fall.

But while the school was finding its way, Wynns, a long-time opponent of the departed Rojas, was dismantling his pet projects. She got an anti-Edison majority on the board in November 2000, when Sanchez and Mar were elected.

As a former Thomas Edison teacher, Sanchez had told the Chronicle in early 1998—before the charter was proposed—that the school was "in a free fall." As a trustee, he told Edison Charter backers the board would revoke Edison's charter, and then go after the city's other charter schools, all run by nonprofits.

"No charter is good enough for this board," says Diallo Dphrepaulezz of the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in San Francisco, who wrote a study on "The Fight To Save Edison Charter." (Dphrepaulezz was so impressed by what he found that he joined the charter school's board.) Led by Wynns, Sanchez, and Mar, the board declared there'd been complaints about Edison Charter and ordered a district investigation. The preliminary report accused Edison Schools Inc. of various misdeeds, notably coercing teachers to approve the initial charter application, failing to provide financial documents, and ending bilingual education classes—instead of flouting the state's English immersion law like the rest of the district's schools.

Parents Don't Count

The school board tried to deny Edison any claim to success by redefining success. Sure, test scores are up, critics said. But scores are up in some other schools, too. Where? In selected grades and selected subjects. Besides, went the board's argument, Edison Charter has attracted new students from less dysfunctional families. The blacks with rising scores "aren't the same kids" who attended Thomas Edison, said Sanchez, who offered no proof that the school had found a cache of middle-class black families.

At one board meeting, Wynns claimed that a former Edison Charter consultant had described the charter as "two schools," one for African-Americans and another for Latinos, in the district's report. (The report also lists a parent's complaint that Latino students were allowed to take more ketchup packets than blacks in the lunch line.) But the consultant, Edee Allison, wasn't talking about Edison Charter Academy. She told the district's interviewer that Thomas Edison was "two schools" before the charter, with teachers and administrators more lax in disciplining Latino students. She actually credited Edison Charter with a "tremendous turn around" of an "out of control" school.

The most damaging allegation was that Edison Charter "counseled out" poor, black, and special education students, dumping them into other schools to improve its test scores. But the district's case was weak. Edison Charter has a slightly lower percentage of poor students than Thomas Edison, as measured by eligibility for a free lunch. But poverty rates for students dropped in schools across the city in the late 1990s. During the dotcom boom, San Franciscans either got richer or were driven out of town by higher rents. Edison Charter educates the same number of black students, almost all bused in from the same area—Bayview-Hunter's Point—as in the pre-charter days. By contrast, black enrollment fell at nearby schools in the heavily Latino Mission District when a judge ended the city's desegregation plan in 1999. However, Edison Charter's percentage of blacks is lower than in pre-charter days because overall enrollment is up by 35 percent. Most of the new students are Latino kids from the neighborhood. (Whites account for 4.5 percent of students.)

As for special education students, the numbers are within the range set before the charter, and district investigators admitted that Edison Charter had followed district policy in telling students who couldn't handle "mainstreaming" that they'd have to transfer to another school for special classes. In any event, an actual decline in the number of such students would be a sign of success. Most special ed students are "learning disabled," which essentially means they can't read. Teach kids to read in first grade, and the special ed numbers will go down.

The board had demanded that Edison fix the problems it found. But it found few problems after the charter's first year, none in its third.

There's no question that Edison Charter is gaining students with engaged parents, the kind who make an active school choice. It's no longer a dumping ground for students whose parents didn't request a school. However, it's not just the new, less needy kids who are learning to read and calculate. Students who attended the school before the Edison takeover boosted their scores in the first two years. According to the Pacific Research report, Edison Charter was the third- fastest improving school out of 73 elementary schools in the city.

So when the school's charter was under attack, the old Thomas Edison parents and the newer Edison Charter parents came together to save their school. They organized, they petitioned, they created a web site to make their case. They showed up at board meetings in red T-shirts with kids waving homemade "Save Our School" signs. They were treated with contempt, parents say. Wynns read the newspaper while they spoke.

"They'll start an hour late," says Allegra Harrison, a single mother who has worked her way from low-income to moderate. "Our kids get restless waiting. Then they say, 'Can't you keep your kids quiet?' Jill Wynns told us she didn't have to talk to us. 'You're not district parents,'" she said.

Harrison said she doesn't care if Edison makes a profit. After her son's miserable experience at a neighborhood school, she wants a choice for her daughter. "I don't see who's getting exploited. I just see kids formerly stranded in the gutter finally getting a decent education."

When 150 Edison Charter parents showed up at a May board meeting, an Edison opponent urged the board to ignore them. "Don't listen to them," the young activist said. "Half of them don't speak English. They've been brainwashed by Edison." Sure enough, the board didn't listen.

But the media did listen. They could find dozens of parents eager to talk about how Edison Charter Academy had served their kids. No, they hadn't been bused to the meeting at corporate expense, as the opponents had claimed. They'd come on their own initiative to fight for their school.

Only one disgruntled parent—a woman whose child was suspended repeatedly for fighting classmates and staff—was available to pitch the "counseling out" story. Her child had left Edison Charter after the first year. Principal Matthews, a black male, also proved an effective antidote to stories that Edison Charter is hostile to black males. "I've been an advocate for disadvantaged students for 15 years," he said. "My goal is to educate students. This design does work."

The Charter Compromise

At a special board meeting on June 25, Edison Charter parents and children waited from 8 p.m., when the meeting was supposed to start, till 9:30, when it did. Finally, the public was allowed into the boardroom. The trustees sat at the far end of a huge circular desk, far from the clear plastic chairs set up for the public. Wynns announced the deal: Edison would be chartered by the state and would pay rent on the school building comparable to rent charged other charters; it would give up its students' share of the district's desegregation funds. Edison also would promise not to expand the school or to manage any other charter in the city. Public testimony—the stated purpose of the meeting—would be limited to one minute per person, 10 minutes in all, said Wynns. Normally speakers get two minutes each, with 30 minutes set aside for testimony.

Edison Charter parents were angry. One woman stomped out after shouting that she'd left the hospital to come to the meeting. Wynns threatened to adjourn with no public comment. Adrienne Johnson used her 60 seconds to announce the formation of Parents to Revoke the School Board, vowing to work to unseat every trustee in the next five years.

An Edison critic tried to redirect the spin. "It was never against the parents," said Mary Harris of Parent Advocates for Youth, a Coleman offshoot. "It has never been about taking anything away from kids. It's against Edison corporation." In the plastic seats, the red-shirted parents buzzed in anger, because they knew better.

Under the deal, Edison will have to trim its academic program to cover the $350,000 annual rent on the building, and the loss of desegregation funding. "Changes will be minimal," says Gaynor McCown, the company's spokeswoman. The school almost certainly will lose money, with or without a rent to cover.

California's school funding doesn't cover Edison's longer year and enriched program. But Edison didn't lose its charter. "This was an important precedent for us," McCown says. Dphrepaulezz thinks Edison gave away too much. Negotiating away the school's share of desegregation funds is unconstitutional, he says. It's a federal civil rights remedy that belongs to the students, not to the district or to Edison. Beyond that, Edison could have won—eventually—if it had gone to court to defend its charter. "Personally I think Edison should have called the school board's bluff," says Dphrepaulezz. "Now any board can launch an arbitrary attack and monkey wrench you back to the table."

An independent charter, without corporate funding behind it, couldn't have survived the school board's relentless attack. But a for-profit corporation can't survive forever without actually making a profit. Edison's plan says it will break even by 2004. To meet that goal, will it compromise on quality—say, by cutting instruction time and teacher pay? Or will Edison become a nonprofit, with donors making it possible to offer high-quality, full-day, 10-month-a-year instruction to needy students?

In the world of education, accountability is a new and often malleable idea. Financial accountability is well understood and enforced. It could prove a much tougher foe for Edison than the San Francisco Unified School Board.