WHEN entrepreneur Christopher Whittle created the Edison Project early last year, he expected to ``invent the new American school.''
Plans called for a national network of 200 for-profit schools by 1995. Soon after the turn of the century, there were to be more than 1,000 campuses enrolling 2 million students.
Now those goals have been scaled back dramatically. Mr. Whittle's other business ventures have faltered, and he failed to attract the $750 million needed to create a national system of private schools.
What began as an anti-establishment effort to revolutionize public education is turning to embrace the system it originally snubbed. Instead of competing with the public schools, Whittle has decided to join hands with them.
The latest evolution in the Edison Project calls for starting partnerships with public schools by the fall of 1995. A handful of private schools may be opened in 1996 or '97.
Benno C. Schmidt Jr., former president of Yale University and now head of the project, puts a positive spin on the company's shifting strategy. ``The plan from the beginning was to build schools that would serve as a model for change in public schools,'' he says. ``That's why the private schools were going to be priced at no more than the public schools.... What happened is that we became convinced that public education is more ripe and eager for change than we thought.''
During the past year, Edison officials have heard from ``scores'' of politicians and educators interested in implementing the ``Edison model'' in their schools, Mr. Schmidt says.
This model is based on Mortimer Adler's ``Great Books'' curriculum and includes high academic standards. All students would be expected to study algebra by eighth grade and be bilingual by the end of fifth grade. The school year would be 210 days, compared with the 180 days in a typical public school. Technology is central to the design; every Edison student would have a personal computer.
The increasing interest in charter-school laws nationwide may provide an avenue of entry for Edison partnerships. Charter schools operate free of state and local restrictions and aim to develop innovative models within the public-school system.
Edison would not be the first company to run public schools. Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) is already operating nine schools in Baltimore.
The difference between Edison and EAI, Schmidt says, is that ``EAI is working more within an existing design and trying to improve it. We really have a different model. We'll be working with school districts that want to bring a new, innovative, and quite different kind of school into their system.''
Discussions have already taken place with 90 to 100 districts interested in an Edison partnership, according to Schmidt. Concrete agreements are expected to be worked out late this winter.
Meanwhile, public educators are being hired to help forge the public-private partnerships. Deborah McGriff, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools, joined the Edison Project last week.
Like many public educators, Dr. McGriff says she was less impressed with the Edison Project when it was planning a chain of private schools. ``My interest in the Edison Project was stimulated as a result of their interest in public education,'' she says. ``I see it as a way to help save public education.''
But winning over the teachers' unions and other privatization opponents may not be as easy. Plans to abolish teacher tenure and use Whittle's Channel One news program in schools are sure to be controversial.