Despite intense opposition from critics, Edison Schools is proving that a "for-profit" company can make a positive difference in education.
Edison is an educational management company that currently operates 27 schools in Michigan and 113 schools across the country, serving more than 57,000 students. In Michigan, a recent example of Edison's partnership with public schools is in the Inkster school district, where it has taken control of operations and has saved the district from a state takeover.
Going into the 1999-2000 school year, the suburban Detroit district was facing dismally low graduation rates, a burgeoning debt, and alarming enrollment losses due to students taking advantage of Michigan's schools-of-choice program.
When the state threatened to take over the district, the school board became willing to consider a new approach to its problems: contracting the daily operation of Inkster schools to Edison, in the hope that the company could turn things around.
The Michigan Education Association, the state's largest union for janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teachers, is opposed to contracting out and often works to scuttle attempts by districts at outsourcing. It should be noted that the MEA has contracted out at its own headquarters for such things as mail, food, and security.
The Inkster school board voted to contract with Edison in February 2000. By September, Edison had assumed operation of the entire district. Edison-Inkster Superintendent Terry Ann Boguth says so far the results have been more than encouraging.
"Since last year [when the contract with Edison was announced], enrollment has increased 15 percent, the first enrollment increase in 10 years," Boguth told Michigan Privatization Report.
Part of Edison's plan for Inkster is to directly assess which subject areas need the most work and focus the educational program on fixing these. Included in Edison's five-year contract with Inkster is a guarantee that the number of students who achieve passing reading and math scores on the state achievement test will increase by 3 percent in the first year, with a yearly improvement rate of 5 percent each year after that. It also guarantees that test scores in other subject areas will increase by a total of 10 percent by the end of the five-year contract period.
To accomplish these goals and encourage accountability among teachers, parents and students, Edison is using Quarterly Learning Contracts, which are a fundamental part of Edison's school design. The contract is an agreement between a student, the parents of that student, and the student's teachers. It defines each person's responsibilities in the educational process. The contracts allow each student to have a personalized education plan that focuses on individual areas of greatest need.
Contracts include a specific goal established for the student each quarter, such as improving reading skills. Tasks to be performed in achieving the goal are also listed in the contract, which is signed by the student, parents, and teacher. The contracts, along with narrative report cards, allow teachers to provide ongoing written input on a student's progress rather than just a letter grade. Boguth says the contracts encourage each party in the educational process to "commit to responsibilities."
Edison-Inkster also has implemented a longer school day and school year for the district. Depending on their grade, students attend school seven or eight hours per day, and students are in school three days longer than the typical school year.
But Boguth says one of the best improvements made so far is Edison's teacher training initiative. The district provides ongoing teacher training through professional development seminars and technology training. All Edison-Inkster teachers have their own laptop computers and are regularly trained in new ways to integrate technology into classroom activities.
Edison-Inkster also plans to provide students in third grade and above with home computers to allow access to homework on the Internet and to encourage parents to maintain constant contact with teachers via e-mail. Boguth says changes in curriculum will focus on improving reading skills and introducing foreign languages in elementary school classes.
Despite the positive changes that have been made in Inkster's schools, the district still may face state takeover due to problems with its elected school board. The Detroit Free Press recently reported that Inkster's school board has broken the contract with Edison by acting in a "financially irresponsible" manner.
In taking over the district, Edison agreed to eliminate Inkster's $1.9-million debt, and expected board support for future cost-saving measures. But the Free Press investigation shows that Inkster school board members cost the district $66,000 by refusing to approve a contract with an outside vendor to provide food services to Inkster schools.
According to the Free Press, board members also spent over $10,000 in travel expenses for out-of-state education conferences, despite a district moratorium on out-of-state travel, and refused to document many of the expenditures with receipts. The Free Press investigation also found that, of the receipts submitted for school board members' trips, many were for lavishly high-priced meals and other questionable expenses.
Despite these and other negative developments, Inkster School Board President John T. Rucker, in a recent newsletter, commended the improvements Edison has made in the district and mentioned the board's commitment to saving money.
"We are dedicated to continuing the improvement of Inkster Public Schools . . . . We accept our obligation to be fiscally responsible and are continuing to seek new ways to operate our schools more economically," Rucker wrote.
State officials will only interfere with the district if problems continue with the school board, or if Edison requests state assistance.
In addition to the Inkster district, Edison runs over 27 other schools in Michigan. Its success with these schools, however, was recently questioned in a Western Michigan University (WMU) study, funded by the National Education Association, a vocal opponent of charter schools, educational management companies, and privatization. The WMU study said that Edison was no more successful at boosting student achievement than the districts that hired the company.
The study conceded that Edison students show improvement gains from year to year on standardized tests, but claimed that Edison-run schools do not perform as well as the company advertises.
John Chubb, chief education officer and executive vice president for Edison, told the Detroit Free Press the study is "a biased report that was set up from the start to criticize Edison Schools." Chubb also told the Free Press that the study was unscientific and the data used were old and incomplete.
Despite the debate over Edison's involvement and success in education, the rapid growth of Edison Schools and the company's innovative programs have encouraged parents, teachers, and school districts to consider options beyond the traditional model for public education. Educational management companies like Edison are becoming more prevalent and are drawing support from parents and activists looking for bolder reform ideas in education.
Elizabeth Moser is the the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's education research assistant.