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Flashy education experiment falters

Three years after promising to combine entrepreneurial razzle-dazzle with cutting-edge education, it has come to this for the Edison Project of for-profit schools: either the project raises $25-million to $50-million within the next two months or it dies a very noisy, public death.

The stripped-down plans bear little resemblance to media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle's original vision of 1,000 private schools built from scratch.

At stake is not just a project that already has tapped some of the nation's best minds in education and spent $40-million to develop a prototype for what is billed as technologically advanced, cost-effective education. Also at issue is the future of the budding, if hugely controversial, movement to bring corporate America into the nation's classrooms.

With the collapse or sale of Whittle's other companies in recent months, critics are jumping on the Edison Project as never before, depicting it as an oversold fantasy that would use America's schoolchildren as bait for investors.

Whittle first gained attention by returning Esquire magazine to profitability in the 1980s, and may be best known for Channel One, which brings newscasts and advertising into about 12,000 schools around the country.

"I don't think it's possible, I don't think it's going to happen, I think it's la-la land," Sandra Feldman, the New York City president of the American Federation of Teachers, told participants in a conference titled "The Galloping Privatization of Public Schools" held in New York last week.

"I think it's going to self-destruct," she said, as the Edison Project's director of curriculum, John Chubb, looked on uncomfortably.

Impressive team

But teachers unions have always been among the harshest critics of for-profit educational programs. Even if they distrust the corporate pedigree, most educators have enormous respect for the team Whittle assembled and the Edison Project's attempt to rethink almost everything about education _ from the configuration of classes to the length of the school year to the role of technology.

"Everything that Edison has said they would do with us and for us they have honored," said Dr. Blanche Fraser, superintendent of the Mount Clemens Community School District in Mount Clemens, Mich., the first district to sign a contract with Edison.

"We're looking forward to having a model of the best educational and organizational practice in our school district so we can learn from it and benefit from it."

What remains entirely unclear is whether Edison can run first-rate schools and also turn a profit. And unless Edison can find investors to keep it alive, that question will remain unanswered.

Edison is not the only experiment in for-profit education. The other high-profile company is Education Alternatives Inc., recently hired to run the Hartford, Conn., school district. But many other companies are scrambling for part of the $260-billion business that is American public education.

Shrinking plans

Still, ever since May 1992, when Whittle lured Benno Schmidt Jr. from the presidency of Yale to head the Edison Project, Edison has come to symbolize both the promise and perils of for-profit education.

Originally the plan was for 1,000 private schools. That goal changed to managing 200 public schools with 15 to open by next year. Now the strategy is to open perhaps half the number next year.

To critics, the heart of Edison, from its grandiose plans to its choice of Schmidt, an inspired fund-raiser with no background in elementary and secondary education, has always been more about corporate empire building than educating children.

"In education, anyone can make any claim they want," said Henry Levin, a Stanford University economist, who founded Stanford's Accelerated Schools program, which works with troubled students in 700 schools in 37 states. "But the problem is education isn't a profitable area. I just laughed when they made all their claims in the beginning, but the question was, would the investment community buy it? Well, they didn't buy it."

Schmidt, whose salary has been reported to be $800,000, said he was confident he would find the financing Edison needs but declined to offer specifics.

He and others say the company has three options _ to find new investors, to get more money from current investors or some combination of the two.

"I think it would be a real shame for the children of America and the future of public education if the Edison Project failed and never gets to try its product," said John McLaughlin, an education professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and editor of the newsletter, The Education Investor.

"It has brought together good minds and invested tremendous resources and focused the national attention on what the private sector may be able to do for public education."

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