Mainstreaming Educational Entrepreneurs

Edison pupils discussing an assignment at Dr. Martin L. King Academy in Mount Clemens. Edison students attend school 90 minutes longer (on average) per day than their traditional public school counterparts.

A school choice plan may come in any number of forms: vouchers, cross-district choice, and tax credits to name a few. One plan that has been drawn on blackboards across America is the private, for-profit, management of public schools.

The new calculus of market incentives in government education is changing the way people view education. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, roughly 10% of the 750 charter schools that are operating in the United States contract with a for-profit management company. That market penetration is good news for kids and for the fledgling industry that is serving them.

The rationale behind various school choice programs is that giving parents the financial freedom to choose the schools they believe are best for their kids—whether public (within or across district lines), private, or parochial—will stimulate healthy competition and encourage reform.

The new calculus of market incentives in government education is changing the way people view education.

An approach is needed that permits the widest possible school choice for parents seeking educational alternatives. A schooling option that is truly different, and avoids direct state subsidy of private and religious schools may facilitate competition among schools and improve education. In the past few years, for-profit companies have addressed this need with a variety of educational services offered directly to public school districts. The most prominent of these enterprises is the Edison Project.

Edison’s approach consists of teaching the basics well, "team teaching" classroom instruction that lets each teacher have contact with a student over three years, a longer school day (by 90 minutes, on average), heavy reliance on technology (each student receives a computer and intensive instruction on how to use it), and the promise to do it all for the same per-pupil allocation the district would spend.

Edison now operates schools in Boston, Massachusetts; Wichita, Kansas; Sherman, Texas; and Mount Clemens, Michigan. (Mount Clemens has a current combined student enrollment of over 2,000.) Edison’s aggressive marketing and ability to raise large amounts of capital ($45 million for curriculum development alone) have vaulted the company to prominence in the for-profit education field. In addition, arrangements have been made to open a second school in Boston, along with facilities in Colorado, Florida, and Texas, plus Detroit and Flint. Battle Creek and Pontiac are considering Edison proposals currently.

In Mount Clemens, the Edison project operates the Dr. Martin L. King Academy, which opened in 1994 and is managed by Edison—the nation’s first privately operated public school. Dr. Blanche E. Fraser, then superintendent of the Mount Clemens Community School District, told MPR in an interview last year that "Edison has delivered on every promise that it has made to us." She added that parents "actively lobbied" for Edison to participate in the Mount Clemens middle school so their children could remain with Edison as they moved through each grade.

Fortunately, the Mount Clemens Board of Education agreed. In 1996 Edison opened the Mount Clemens Junior Academy for students in grades six through eight. In February 1997, the board agreed to allow the Edison Project to run a school for ninth- and tenth-graders. The "Mount Clemens Senior Academy" is expected to open in August 1997.

There have been some setbacks, too. Other Edison startups have been blocked around the country. Even in Michigan, where charter school laws make the state one of the most active centers of education choice, Edison projects have run aground.

In Muskegon, teachers refused to approve contract changes that would allow for the hiring of Edison. Edison would have invested $1.5 million in two schools in exchange for a five-year contract to operate each institution. In addition, they would have also given a 10% raise to Edison teachers in exchange for working 15% more hours than their nonEdison counterparts.

The Lansing School District attempted to recruit the Edison Project in 1996. Unfortunately, the District was unable to come to an agreement with the local teachers’ union and the deal fell through. Michigan law requires the district to work with teacher bargaining units on issues such as teacher pay and work hours. The negotiations broke down over those subjects. Deputy Superintendent of Schools Rossi Ray-Taylor reports that the financial demands of the teacher bargaining unit were higher than the district could pay, while living within its budget and still hiring Edison to run its school.

Pursuing a wide variety of education alternatives may also be in the best interests of teachers and public school districts which have largely viewed the for-profit reformers as a threat. What could provide better career opportunities for educators than many options to suit students, parents, and teachers alike?

Scholastic decline—especially in the nation’s inner cities—argues strongly for giving Edison and other educational entrepreneurs a chance to prove that for-profit education is a viable alternative. For-profit educational services could prove to be an important component of the movement to reform our nation’s schools. We owe it to our children—and our society—to find out.

Editor’s Note: On September 12, 1997, the Michigan Education Association attempted to unionize teachers at an Edison-run charter school in Lansing. Teachers voted it down.