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Edison Project proposal sparks debate

It's an interesting and potentially embarrassing question that local school administrators are going to have to ask themselves:

Could a private company take over one of our schools and do the job better and cheaper?

The Edison Project, an ambitious venture to create a nationwide chain of profit-making schools, has expressed interest in taking over a school in Hillsborough County and another in Pinellas County. The proposals are just in their infancy, but the debate already under way suggests the future of public education is up for discussion.

In Hillsborough County, the school superintendent is receptive so far.

"My staff might find a dozen reasons why we shouldn't do this, but on the front end it doesn't frighten me at all," said Hillsborough Superintendent Walter Sickles.

But the teachers union is dead-set against Edison.

"It's a money-making proposal _ another scheme to get public money to finance a private enterprise," said Terry Wilson, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "If you put the money in the classroom and if teachers are given real decision-making, we know what to do."

The Edison Project is led by former Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt, who left the Ivy League school in 1992 to help create superior new schools that operate within a public school budget. The project is backed by Whittle Communications, Time Warner Inc. and others.

The project has been scaled back from the original goal of establishing 1,000 private schools around the nation in the near future. Investors apparently have been guarded with their money, and now the Edison Project aims to take over the operations of perhaps 30 to 40 schools by the 1995-96 school year.

Here in Florida the effort is led by Walter J. McCarroll, a veteran educator who recently left his post as Florida's deputy commissioner of education under Betty Castor. He helped implement Blueprint 2000, the state's effort to reinvent the public schools.

McCarroll said he hopes to get three or four Florida schools on line by the fall of 1995 _ including one each in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Sickles already has met twice with Edison representatives. The district's Visions and Goals Committee will study the proposal and make a recommendation to Sickles, and he will decide whether to take it to the School Board.

In Pinellas County, things are just getting started; McCarroll is scheduled to make a presentation to the district's education foundation next month.

Even before he makes his pitch in Pinellas, McCarroll and the Edison Project have come in for criticism.

"I don't think Dr. McCarroll is more qualified to run the schools than (Pinellas superintendent) Dr. Hinesley," said Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "Support for the Edison Project is saying the people we've hired to run our schools are not good enough."

So why would an administrator want to cooperate with a private company that wants to prove it can do a better job?

"A good number of superintendents will view it with skepticism," McCarroll said. "But I think we've broadened our idea of how we serve kids. We need to go outside the normal, traditional way of doing things.

"If Edison succeeds, the public schools succeed."

Said Sickles: "I have been skeptical that they can make money off of it using the money we're given from the state, and still do a good job for kids. But I'm willing to look at it. If they can find some way to do the job and we can learn from them, I'm interested."