Education takes back seat to political motivations

Maggie Gallagher

3/29/2001 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
Does anybody on the San Francisco Board of Education actually care about educating kids?

Doesn't look like it, given the scathing, apparently politically motivated attack on Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit educational firm that now runs 113 schools in 45 states, many of them charter schools like the Edison Charter Academy in San Francisco. Parents from that school packed an auditorium this week begging the educational powers-that-be not to revoke Edison's city contract.

In its former incarnation as a government-run school, Thomas Edison Elementary was the kind of school that "parents fought to get out of," as one teacher told the San Francisco Chronicle. Now more than 80 percent of Edison's parents have signed a petition urging the city to keep Edison Inc. at the school's helm.

Edison specializes in taking over failing urban schools with sometimes spectacular results -- including, ironically, in San Francisco. According to The New York Times, since Edison took over running the school, the proportion of students scoring in the upper half nationally on math and reading tests has more than doubled, while the number in the lowest ranks has been cut by a third.

To Jill Wynns, president of the San Francisco Board of Ed, success is irrelevant. "Although we recognize that a number of parents are satisfied with the education their children are receiving at Edison," she told the crowd, "the fact is ..." that none of that matters to the board.

Critics charge racial discrimination (against blacks at this heavily Latino school) and say that explains Edison's rising test scores. (Is that racist, or what?) But even The New York Times says opponents "have failed to offer concrete evidence that Edison has forced out students to increase its test scores."

Educrats, in order to keep the schools and their money in government hands, play on parents' uneducated fears that the company's profits somehow come out of their children's interests. "I don't think for-profit companies have any place here," one mother of three children in San Francisco public schools (though not at an Edison school) told The Times. "In public schools there is never such a thing as leftover money."

In New York, where the current betting is that Edison won't get permission to take over five of the city's worst schools (thanks to strong opposition from activists and a botched campaign by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy), the idea that there is something nefarious about making money by educating kids has also taken hold. "Edison just wants the money," student James Trimm told the New York Post. To get and keep the money, Edison will have to improve the education at these schools, but Trimm frankly has given up on that. "Even if they take over the school, things won't change. There's still going to be gangs and graffiti and kids destroying property. One-Eleven will stay the same." Just another number in the New York City cog, apparently.

Vilma Ticas, whose son was in Thomas Edison Elementary before Edison took over running it, could tell Trimm a different story. "Before, my son was passed from second to third grade, and he couldn't read," she told the Chronicle. Nothing unusual about that in demoralized urban schools. But, "Now he is improving dramatically."

Let government schools fail year after year, and activists cry only for more money for these failing systems. Let an innovative company move in and make a success, however, and the money it makes is somehow tainted. Shut down the competition!

I am not an advocate for private or for-profit education, just for education. There are some relationships the market can never duplicate, but the relationship between children, parents and teachers at failing schools is nothing to celebrate or seek to preserve at all costs. In New York, parents appear to be missing an opportunity. In San Francisco they are having one ripped out from beneath their feet.

Educating poor kids to read and write in safe, orderly schools? Next to waging ideological warfare on corporate profits of companies that threaten your education monopoly, who cares about that?