YALE University president Benno Schmidt Jr. announced Tuesday that he is resigning as president of the 300-year-old institution to head a year-old experimental education project that has little but blueprints to show for itself.
As president and chief executive officer of the Edison Project, Schmidt will spearhead an ambitious effort to create a for-profit national school system.
"The future of the country really depends on the quality and vitality of our educational system," says Mr. Schmidt, reached by phone in New Haven, Conn. "We have the best system of higher education in the world ... but I think most Americans feel that our system of elementary and secondary education is not working well."
The Edison Project was launched last year by Christopher Whittle, chairman of Whittle Communications and founder of Channel One, a controversial TV news program that includes commercials and is shown in high school classrooms across the United States. "Benno Schmidt's joining this effort is an indication of the momentum that is building for a revolution in education," Mr. Whittle said in a statement. Core team named
The Edison Project is intended to bring about this revolution. In March, Whittle named a core team of seven educators, journalists, and business people who will spend the next two years designing radically new schools.
The current timetable calls for building and opening 200 schools combining preschool and elementary education by the fall of 1996. By 2010, 1,000 campuses are expected to serve 2 million students, preschool to high school.
Tuition is to be no more than the current cost per pupil in public schools, about $5,500 a year. Twenty percent of all students in the system would receive scholarships, and students would be selected randomly from a pool of applicants. Whittle estimates that opening the first 200 schools may cost as much as $2.5 billion.
"This is a very risky and very difficult venture," says Schmidt, who turned down the job last year when it was first offered to him. "But I think it's time that some risks of this kind were taken to introduce some new thinking."
A major benefit of the Edison Project is that it can create economies of scale by setting up a national network of schools, Schmidt says. "Education is the last major social and economic activity in the United States that is pursued on an almost completely fragmented basis," he says. "The advantages of integration at all levels - technological, training, systems, designs - are so great that I think there's an enormous opportunity here."
Schmidt's resignation after six years at Yale comes just months after two other top-level resignations at the Ivy League school: Dean Donald Kagen and Provost Frank Turner.
"Schmidt's efforts to cut back the budget at Yale were very difficult, very protracted, and not as effective as they might have been," says Arthur Levine of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "It didn't make it a very attractive environment to stay in."
Not so, says Schmidt. "I loved my time at Yale and feel a lot of satisfaction about it. But I'd like to turn my energies to trying to achieve innovation and real structural reform that could be historic in elementary and secondary education."
While the Yale community is reeling from the shock of the sudden resignation announcement, others are questioning the choice of this Ivy League president as head of the Edison Project.
"One of the surprising things about it is that Schmidt really has no large-scale connection with elementary/secondary education," says Gene Maeroff, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
"I'm not doing this because I'm an expert," responds Schmidt, "far from it. But I do have some experience in bringing together gifted, creative people, and I know something about trying to manage complex and high-quality educational institutions." Attracting students
But will there be a market for this new educational product? "I have yet to be persuaded that there is some great number of families that are looking for a place to send their children and pay tuition for elementary and secondary school beyond what's already available," Mr. Maeroff says. "People who can afford to pay tuition already have lots of alternatives."
Attracting students to Whittle schools won't be easy, concedes Schmidt. "It won't happen unless we can demonstrate that we have a rather dramatically different and improved approach."
Critics charge that Whittle is merely looking for an avenue to inject commercialism into schools. They envision school halls lined with billboards.
"The financing for this is not going to be on the basis of commercials and commercialism," says Schmidt. The project is in its infancy and the designs for new schools haven't taken form yet.
"We don't even know if our schools will have halls," Schmidt says.