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Edison's Dimming Bulb?

Allowing a private company to teach children in public schools has been one of the boldest experiments in American education over the past decade.

The leader in this hybrid public/private schooling has been Edison, a company that functions much like a vendor to publicly sanctioned school authorities. Today, Edison manages some 100 schools around the country.

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It's worth checking up on Edison because its innovations could be a model for fixing the worst public schools, even though it's just one of many experiments bringing more choice into K-12 education.

The company has had it ups and downs. Its listed stock is way down, and it recently lost its most lucrative contract, the Dallas Independent School District. Yet all in all, students in Edison schools continue to perform better than they would have otherwise in the most disadvantaged classrooms. And Edison just opened its first school in Britain.

The company feels a squeeze from two ends of its business: would-be investors demanding profits, and public bureaucracies and teachers unions stuck in their old ways. Edison has been chewed up by those unions and the political power structure in New York City and Philadelphia schools, and didn't have a real opportunity to prove itself in those cities, even though it still operates some schools in Philadelphia and New York State. Overall, Edison had control in hiring only 40 percent of its schools' principals. And with principals so fundamental to school success, that obstacle to implementing Edison's model becomes obvious. Further, teachers were paid directly by the schools, and didn't readily take "ownership" of Edison's model.

While its schools have more art, music, and physical education than many public schools, Edison has also been hit by the new federal demand for standardized testing, and must reset some priorities.

Its woes have hurt the fledgling industry in for-profit schools. Competitors are having trouble finding investors.

Despite its critics, though, Edison's efforts may be just the beginning of market-driven incentives to force schools to tighten their sprawling bureaucracies and loosen up entrenched personnel.

It, and other like-minded enterprises, have set a fine example in "break-the-mold" education models.


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