"COME SEE Our Test Scores." That was the inscription last fall on the
large welcoming banner on a fence outside San Francisco's Edison Charter
Academy, an elementary school operated by Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit,
publicly traded outfit in New York.
We may have seen the last of that promotional banner, however, since the
recently elected school board appears ready to cancel its contract with the
company. This writer could not be happier.
The single biggest objection to Edison Inc. is the way it expects to make
money. Edison Inc. students are repeatedly drilled to perform better,
apparently boosting test scores at the corporation's 113 schools throughout
the nation. In turn, that allows the company to attract the interest of more
school districts desperate for improvement.
In essence, students are the laborers who both create Edison's product
(higher test scores) and determine the company's stock value, since more
schools mean more profit. Surely, the least Edison could do is reward its
otherwise uncompensated, underage laborers with stock options.
But Edison Inc. supporters brush aside such concerns. The company, after
all, has lengthened the school day by two hours and the year by 10 days. It
has outfitted third- through fifth-graders with take-home laptop computers.
Moreover, as The Chronicle noted in an editorial supporting Edison Inc.'s
continued operation of the school, whereas second-graders at Edison tested in
the 21st percentile in math before the Edison Inc. takeover, second-graders
tested in the 57th percentile this past year. Edison Inc. seems to have raised
student test scores.
These apparent gains, though, are misleading. They offer a onetime snapshot
of different students' performances rather than charting the progress of the
Student test performance may have increased because of the school's
substantial change in student demographics since the takeover, rather than
because of Edison Inc.'s influence or expertise. The Edison test score "gains,
" in essence, are as hollow as corporate earnings reports that hide losses.
Another point: Nearly 70 percent of the San Francisco Edison Charter
Academy teachers from last year, spurning a last minute Edison Inc. offer of a
wage increase, failed to return for the start of this school year. They left
both overworked and disillusioned with a scripted curriculum that sapped them
No matter what one may say about Edison's seeming improvement, such drastic
teacher turnover and Edison Inc.'s general "burn 'em out, turn 'em out"
teacher development strategy negates a school's possibility for building long-
term, cohesive and stable learning communities.
As to Edison's improved resources (mostly computers and a sprucing up of
the grounds), they came largely from a $1.8 million donation from the Don and
Doris Fisher Family Foundation. Never mind the basic philosophical conundrum:
Isn't donating money to the for-profit Edison like holding a bake sale for
We need to ask: Why couldn't the Fishers, who have been unduly generous to
Edison and other anti-public school ventures, have bestowed a similar grant on
the school before the takeover?
No doubt there are parents who will feel betrayed if the board votes to
cancel the Edison Inc. contract. But board members who oppose Edison are right.
This is not a performance issue but a philosophical one.
It is about saying that we do not need to hand over power to slick New
Yorkers bearing gifts like free computers whose baseline concern is making
money to satisfy shareholders. It is about sending a strong message that our K-
12 public schools should be for children, not for profit. Let's end our
contract with Edison Inc.
Craig Peck, a doctoral candidate at Stanford's School of Education, is a resident of the Diamond Heights neighborhood in San Francisco.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle