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FEATURE A Private Delusion: The Edison Project BY JEFF MANDELL Every Friday, the teachers at Elm Creek Elementary in southwest San Antonio wear white t-shirts emblazoned with large blue letters that spell the word ‘Edison.” Instead of school pride, the shirts reflect company unity and loyalty to the private company that runs their school. And unlike `spirit days” at most elementary schools, when students and teachers are encouraged to wear t-shirts sporting the school masco4 or at least the school colors, at Elm Creek, Friday spirit days are for teachers only. Wu le it’s not exactly news that the Edison Project hopes to make its fortune by privatizing the operation of public schools across the country, most Edison projects have involved older schools burdened with the intractable educational problems that privatization promises to solve. Elm Creek is brand newand the Southwest Indepen dent School District turned it over to a private company at a time when other communitieseven in privatization-happy Texasare becoming disillusioned with the private operation of public schools. Elm Creek is twenty-five miles southwest of downtown San Antoniojust within the city limits in a neighborhood of modest houses scattered along unmarked, dilapidated roads. “Hay For Sale” signs outnumber the sparse street signs, and at the intersection closest to the school a blinking red light placed atop a large barrel serves as the four-way stop sign. According to Superintendent Richard Clifford, SWISD is approximately the 40th from the bottom in per capita income among the 1,100 school districts in Texas. Yet the 1996 and 1997 Texas Education Agency Accountability Ratings show SWISD as “academically acceptable,” which means that in terms of performance SWISD is doing better than many and trailing very fewother Texas school districts. As far as TEA and the administrators at South West San Antonio are concerned, the district is not turning to the Edison Project in response to a crisis or even to serious problems at Elm Creek. Instead, Edison boosters claim, the company will provide students and parents greater choice in education. “It’s another choice for families,” Elm Creek Principal Tammy Brinkman says. “We in SWISD have always tried to provide choices for students and offer different kinds of things besides the traditional calendar and the traditional school setting, because not all children are the same. They don’t all have the same needs or learn in the same way.” But why is SWISD looking to a private companyespecially this private companyto provide those choices and meet those needs? The brief history of the Edison Project in Texas, after all, has not exactly been distinguished. One of Edison’s four original campuses opened two years ago in Sherman, and this fall Edison is expanding into a second elementary school there. Yet Edison’s experience in Sherman has been less than ideal. “We have not been pleased by our test results at Washington Elementary,” Sherman ISD Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Phillip Garrett says of the district’s Edison campus. “At our other schools, our test results are going up, and at Washington they aren’t.” Garrett does believe that Edison is doing a good job and that test results will improve with time, and while Edison claims that standardized test results have improved at every one of the dozen campuses it has operated for at least one full year. So test scores at Washington Elementary might yet improve and Edison might yet deliver what it has promised. But other Texas school districts have not bought what Edison is selling. Districts as diverse in demographics, size, and performance as Houston ISD, spurned Edison’s advancesand their resistance to Edison’s sales campaign has been steady, even after Edison retained the services of Bill Kirby to convince schoolboards that turning their campuses over to the Edison Project is sound educational policy. Kirby, who has worked as a professor of education and as Texas Education Commissioner, is known to most Texans as the defendant in the Edgewood v. Kirby school-finance lawsuit, in which Edgewood ISD went to court to fight for equitable funding for property-poor school districts. He did not respond to interview requests for this story. ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS Students, parents, and teachers are familiar with Edison’s parent company, Whittle Communications, which created Channel Onea closed-circuit TV narrowcast now wired into many Texas schools. The core of Channel One’s program is ten minutes of daily “news” and two minutes of advertising, all written and prOduced for schoolage audiences. Before Whittle Communications president and Edison Project founder Christopher Whittle sold the closed-circuit network to raise money for the Edison Project, Channel One had become the focus of a heated debate. Many educators saw Channel One as a golden technological opportunity: schools that joined the program received, free of charge, all of the necessary hardwareincluding color televisions for every classroom, VCRs, and satellite linksin exchange for agreeing to show Channel One’s program to all students every school day. But just as many opponents argued that students in public schools should not be captive audiences for advertisers. The California-based Center for Commercial Free Public Education has been organizing “UNPLUG,” a national campaign to remove Channel One from public schools. The media watchdog group Fairness and Channel One’s content and questioning its educational value. In California the San Jose Mercury News published a 1992 investigative report describing Channel One’s aggressive targeting of predominantly 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 26, 1997