Free Market Schools

May 27, 1992

Chris Whittle sure knows how to get attention.

Yesterday, Benno C. Schmidt Jr. quit as the president of Yale University to run the Edison Project, an effort by Mr. Whittle to develop a nationwide network of private schools. The goals, set by Mr. Whittle, a brash Tennessee entrepreneur, are to operate the schools at the same per-pupil cost as public schools (about $5,500 per student), to outperform the public schools by concentrating resources in technology instead of bureaucracy, and to make a profit. He hopes to open 200 such schools in 1996 and expand to 1,000 schools with two million students by the year 2010.

Christopher Whittle has already attracted considerable attention at the murky margin where education meets business. He is the man behind Channel One, which provides schools with television equipment if they agree to have students watch a news program he produces. Commercials, aimed at the captive audience of students, finance the operation. By signing on Benno Schmidt, Mr. Whittle has raised the profile of the Edison Project enormously. The attention given this effort will immediately increase the political pressure to use public funds to support students attending non-public schools -- an idea already endorsed by the Bush administration and opposed by the public school establishment.

The launching of the Edison Project and the recruitment of such a heavyweight figure to head it show a new relation between business and education. For years, businesses have supported and attempted to improve existing schools through such mechanisms as adopt-a-school programs. But improvement in the public schools has been hard to see, and impatient business leaders are turning to alternatives with the prospect of radical change.

A somewhat parallel effort is the New American Schools Development Corp., a non-profit group of top-business CEOs convened as part of President Bush's "America 2000" education plan. The corporation, which has already raised $45 million privately, plans to announce its own chief today and to award contracts in July to 20 to 30 design teams to develop innovative schools.

All this challenges the existing public schools to do better. In some ways, Christopher Whittle is the Ross Perot of education -- an outsider who says that, with his business expertise, he can do the job better than government. Only in Mr. Whittle's case, his experiment can be pursued while existing schools continue to proceed along their own course.

Can the Edison Project succeed? Keeping a 300-year-old university going is very different from building a preschool-through-high school program from scratch. Besides Mr. Schmidt, other members of the project's "core design team" bring similarly impressive intellectual credentials and similarly thin experience in actually running schools. But schools now are not doing nearly well enough, and competitiveness that goads the public school establishment to do better is to be welcomed.

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