Schools Venture Beyond Channel One

November 01, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

The Washington (now American) Journalism Review, in its November 1990 issue, published an upbeat cover story on Chris Whittle, then riding high as a media visionary, a man who had "put information at the service of advertising."

Mr. Whittle's Channel One, a 12-minute news show for students, had signed up 4,500 schools with more to come, despite its daily two minutes of commercials. He had persuaded major companies to invest in Whittle Communications. His $50 million headquarters was due to open in Knoxville, Tenn., in a few months. He had plans to telecast commercial-laden health, family and celebrity features into doctors' waiting rooms across the country.

And just in its embryonic state was a scheme to establish 1,000 private schools nationwide, each with innovative curriculum and the latest in telecommunications equipment.

The article's last paragraph quoted Mr. Whittle: "When they catch up with us, all they'll find is our warm campfires, because we'll be over the next hill."

Four years later, Mr. Whittle is over the next hill, all right, but his campfire is as cold as a witch's earlobe. His empire has fallen apart, much of it, including Channel One, sold off.

More important to the cause of the "privatization" of schools, Mr. Whittle's private school plan, the Edison Project, has been whittled down, first to 200 schools, now to a handful of public schools Edison would operate at a profit. But several school systems have bailed out of deals with Edison, fearing that it lacks the financing to hold to its commitments. And Benno C. Schmidt Jr., whom Mr. Whittle hired away from the Yale presidency at a reported salary of $800,000 to shepherd the venture, reportedly wants his old boss and mentor fired.

All of which has to do with Baltimore in two ways. One is that half of the 84 Channel One schools in Maryland are in Baltimore. All middle and high schools in the city were equipped to receive the broadcasts three summers ago, and the schools' three-year contracts with the new Channel One owner, K-III Communications, expire after this school year.

The second connection is that Baltimore has pioneered the "other" experiment in public school privatization, the nine Tesseract schools operated by Education Alternatives Inc., of Minneapolis.

EAI, too, has had birth pains, and Sun readers have read about them almost daily for several weeks. A combination of grandiose promises on EAI's part and grandiose expectations has put the Minneapolis firm and its chief executive, John T. Golle, on the defensive.

It's true that EAI scored a major coup earlier this fall when it won a contract to run all of the public schools in Hartford, Conn. But presented with the negative news about the company in Baltimore, the near-collapse of Edison, the steady and united opposition from both national teachers' unions, and the absence of any other major privatization contracts among the nation's schools, some say the privatization movement is dead. At least dead in the water.

Is it? Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey says it's here to stay, and that the movement will only accelerate, in large part because public schools aren't doing the job.

To some extent, there's always been privatization in public education: textbooks, food service (now being provided in Baltimore high schools by Marriott), janitorial services.

But the place to look for evidence that privatization isn't dead is around Chris Whittle's first campfire, Channel One. In all the hubbub about test scores, Channel One has been all but forgotten. But nationally it has 11,800 schools signed up, and, according to K-III Communications, is actually viewed each morning by 6.5 million students (including several thousand in Baltimore). That's a heavy dose of "information at the service of advertising."

In Baltimore, two other developments in school telecommunications are directly related to privatization. One is that United ArtistsCable, fulfilling its franchise agreement, is wiring all 182 city public schools, and in those with Channel One the cable programming can be broadcast over the equipment installed three years ago by Whittle.

The other development is that two months ago Bell Atlantic won a contract to link every school in Maryland in a fiber-optic "distance learning network." The network will allow students across Maryland to see and talk to one another as though they were in the same room -- or to watch live broadcasts of the Baltimore Symphony or tour the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Like Whittle before it, Bell Atlantic is installing the network "for free," but the company will charge schools $1,365 a month for three years and $2,730 thereafter. Although it's unlikely that all schools will choose to -- or can afford to -- sign up, that's a hefty sum.

Privatization? You bet. It's not running an entire school, but controlling the information that goes into a school may be as important as actually operating it. All of Chris Whittle's campfires may be cold, but he may have had the right idea in 1990.

'SUCCESS FOR ALL'

Robert E. Slavin, director of "Success for All," a program launched seven years ago by the Johns Hopkins University to prevent disadvantaged children from falling behind in school, picks up a prestigious award -- and $50,000 -- at a ceremony tonight in New York.

Dr. Slavin will be awarded the Charles A. Dana Award, given to recognize pioneering achievements in health and education. "Success for All," which began in city schools in 1987 and has since expanded to 200 schools (18 in Maryland) in 20 states, is based on the proposition that if attention, resources and proven instructional methods are focused on young children, they will achieve as well as their more advantaged peers.

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