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Whittle-ing American Schools

BENNO Schmidt's move from the presidency of Yale to CEO of Chris Whittle's Edison Project is being conducted with much sound and fury, but whether it will signify anything meaningful for US schools is uncertain.

Certainly the advertising mileage for Mr. Whittle's project is significant. Mr. Schmidt's departure from Yale brought TV and radio discussions with him about ideas to transform elementary and secondary education (something he apparently knows little about). His thoughtfully posed face is blown up on full page ads that modestly assert schools "can either save or sink this nation" and that several hundred Edison for-profit schools opening in 1996 will begin saving it. Edison will save it because its goal i s the "reinvention of American education." Sounds like H. Ross Perot's message to fix America; as with Mr. Perot, we await specifics.

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Of course US schools need improving. That's what the past 12 years of school reform have been about - with mixed results. The idea of choice, allowing parents to choose from various schools in their district, has been an important part of reform, since it forces principals, teachers, and parents to rethink what schools are and how they operate. Mr. Whittle, though, wants to leap past the public-school bureaucracy and has hired an impressive set of advisers (few of whom have worked with kids) to design sc hools, as if for the first time.

Schmidt no doubt preferred this challenge to his Yale job, which appears to contain nothing but a series of familiar, difficult problems: how to refurbish Yale's ailing infrastructure and keep academic programs open and prickly faculty happy. When he came to Yale in 1986, Schmidt, perhaps naively, wanted to be first a scholar, then an administrator. He wanted the hallmark of his tenure to be an assertion of the "transcendent importance of moral values." Noble, but his main legacy is as a tough fund-raise r who focused on the physical campus.

Innovative schools are needed; many now exist. Public schools are a civic bulwark of America. How will Whittle schools avoid commercial corruptions? How will they ensure technology won't outweigh virtue? Schools must be an alternative to commercialism, not reflect it - however innovatively.

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