New Edison school proposal lights up discontent in Harlem

The notion of private for-profit management companies running public schools has been a contentious one from the start. But perhaps in no other city has the debate reached quite the fever pitch attained here in New York. Last March, when the New York-based Edison Schools Inc. proposed taking over five of the city's lowest-performing schools, neighborhood parents rejected the idea quickly and angrily. The intensity of community resistance took many by surprise.

Now, officials in Harlem - where one of the five schools proposed for takeover is based - are keeping Edison at arm's length once again. The company, which wants to build a $125 million headquarters in central Harlem - complete with a new home for the Museum of African Art and a 550-seat neighborhood public school - is finding itself rebuffed again.

First of all, there are zoning issues, because one $10 million lot the company has already purchased is in a residential area. But in addition to stating a preference for housing in that area, local Councilman Bill Perkins says: "This is an idea imposed on the community, not one that comes out of the community. No one ever called for Edison to come to town, develop the site, and then include the community in a superficial way." Many say objections like these really stem from the nasty brawl last winter over Edison's proposal to take over the five New York schools. "The way that thing was handled created a lot of outcry in the community against Edison," Mr. Perkins says.

Although, in theory, the management of the New York schools was open to bids from any private company, some involved in the process believe it was designed to favor Edison. Communication lines were poor, too. Many principals and teachers of the schools in question learned about the proposed takeover only by reading the news in the papers.

But some say private management companies have larger lessons to learn before they will be able to successfully work in communities - especially low-income urban communities - where they may be viewed as outsiders.

"There's a learning curve involved here," says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at New York's Columbia University. "The people in [private management companies] have a sense that what they're doing is very desirable to parents, that the only logjam they have to break is an administrative one." But parents and communities may need more wooing than such companies originally imagined, and winning trust may be harder than was first thought.

Dr. Levin says he's sorry to see a fight brewing, as he believes Edison's presence would prove a plus for the neighborhood. Some others agree, including state Sen. Olga Mendez, who's been vocal in her support for the idea. Clearly, says Sy Fliegel, president of New York's Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, "there are political issues here that go beyond the educational ones."

But as Edison and other private management companies continue to work to expand their horizons - especially with Edison rumored to be in the running for the takeover of some Philadelphia public schools - Mr. Fliegel says more work may be required in the area of community relations. "You can't ram anything down a community's throat," he says.

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