The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Edison Schools survive ... but what about education?

Jun 17, 2002

In early June, Edison Schools, with 75,000 students in 22 states, the for-profit education venture of Chris Whittle, gained a 40 million dollar contract, which helped it put off bankruptcy.

This drew headlines because Edison schools had been portrayed as a success and hyped as a model for schools in the future. Its “Success for All” curriculum was supposed to do what the public schools couldn’t do: educate everyone.

But the results have not matched the hype. When California ranked San Francisco elementary schools last year, Edison Academy was in last place. The contract was terminated. In at least three states, when Edison asked for permission to expand to more grades, school boards turned them down and terminated some of their management contracts.

Of course, school success is especially difficult in big cities where many students come from poor families and have numerous problems. These big city school systems have above average numbers of students needing special services as well.

Edison Schools simply tried to avoid these problems, by taking fewer students from disadvantaged families. City school systems cannot avoid such problems, which demand more educational services, at a higher than average cost.

But Edison was not set up by Chris Whittle to improve school education: it was set up to make profits. Its stock price went as high as $39 a share each during the years when for-profit schools were being hyped.

Whittle’s and his top executives received six figure salaries, plus thousands of stock options. At one point, Whittle gained 16 million dollars by selling shares of Edison. There couldn’t be a better example of the way Wall Street makes money for a few wealthy individuals no matter whether they deliver a service or a profit to anyone else.

This was not Whittle’s first education venture. He was the man who came up with the idea for Channel One, the television station aimed at students while they were in school, providing them with a small amount of news and a large amount of commercials.

Throughout his career, Whittle figured there was money to be made in the school system. He is hardly alone. A managing director of investment firm Lehman Brothers, said, “Wall Street is interested in any big-spending industry.” She knew that America’s public schools “are ripe for takeover by private management companies.”

Public schools are already sources of profit for some private enterprise, such as book publishers. Coke and Pepsi battle a never-ending war over which corporation will supply vending machines in a number of big city school systems.

Neither Whittle nor his investors nor Wall Street has education in mind. They hope they can make a profit managing certain schools, schools they choose so they can ignore more expensive educational needs. It is not their concern that the children of the poor and the working class receive a miserable education from which they scarcely learn to read, let alone prepare themselves for any kind of decent paying job.

The public school system was established when working people fought to get education for their children. But establishing public schools doesn’t end the quest for a good education. There’s also the problem of what resources the schools have. And in a society split along class lines, the schools educating the wealthy get significantly more resources. And this is true, whether these schools are private schools or public schools in wealthy areas or magnet schools.

Educational success is split along the same class lines as is capitalist society. A better education will go to the children of the wealthy. An inferior education, if any, goes to the children of the poor and working class majority.

The current move to establish “for profit” schools doesn’t challenge that reality. In fact, it adds to the problem, draining more resources out of education and putting them into profits.