Edison scores a much-needed victory

It may be too early to write the obituary for the experiment of using private companies to run public schools. After years of questions about the effectiveness of their teaching methods and the recent humiliation of watching the value of their stock plummet, Edison Schools Inc. enjoyed a much-needed public relations boost last week when a surge in test scores for their Las Vegas students showed that private management of some public schools could be beneficial.

Edison, a New York-based education management company, is in the third year of a $30-million, five-year contract to manage six elementary schools and a middle school in disadvantaged areas for the Clark County, Nev., School District. The elementary schools reported that their math scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills increased by at least six percentile points in every grade, with the fourth-graders making a particularly impressive gain of 12 percentile points, moving from the 30th to the 42nd.

Comparable elementary schools in the district with similar student profiles also rose, but at a slower pace.

The news comes as an advisory panel of teachers, parents, and administrators is preparing to consider whether to recommend that the district continue with Edison. Up until the October testing period, there was little evidence that the alternative management program, in which teachers are given a new, highly regimented curriculum, a host of more advanced technology, and a longer school day was making much headway.

"We're very encouraged by the news out of Clark County, but frankly it does not come as a surprise to us," said Adam Tucker, spokesman for the company that manages about 130 schools in 21 states. "When you look at Edison schools that have been working with us for an extended period of time - for three, five or seven years - we're able to show steady and consistent gains."

Clark County School District officials said they continue to take a wait-and-see attitude, with skeptical school board trustee Shirley Barber noting that reading and language arts scores have yet to improve. Still, even Mrs. Barber's criticism is softening, and Deputy Superintendent Augustin Orci told the Las Vegas Sun that the results "aren't anything to jump up and down about, but they aren't anything to throw [Edison] out over, either."

For her part, Principal Jan Rosenthal of Crestwood Edison Elementary in Las Vegas is ecstatic about this year's outcome. Her school performed the best of Clark County's Edison schools, enjoying a leap of 17 percentile points in fourth-grade math scores compared with the 2002 results as well as a jump of 14 points in language arts and a three-point increase in reading. Ms. Rosenthal also raved about the generous teacher training provided by Edison.

Yet the practice of turning public schools over to a private corporation remains controversial, with some educators wondering if the gains are dramatic enough to justify the expense and the radical changes Edison demands of its schools. Several school districts, including ones in Dallas and Wichita, Kan., have opted out of their contracts with Edison - the country's largest private education management organization (EMO) - after failing to see significant improvement.

"We don't have any really rigorous evidence in test scores, but what does exist suggests that EMOs are doing about as well as public schools," said Columbia University professor Henry Levin, who studies education privatization. "The assumption made by people on the [political] right is that the business sector can do a more efficient job using government resources than the government can. Up to this point, though, the evidence isn't all that clear."

Indeed, the Wichita School District abandoned Edison in 2002 in part because the school board decided it could save $500,000 by taking back control over the two schools. Yet even there, school officials admit they copied some of Edison's more successful tactics.

Mr. Tucker insisted that much of the controversy over Edison is now subsiding as test scores rise in many of their schools. The company recently returned to private status after a freefall in its stock prices prompted founder Charles Whittle to buy up outstanding stock.

Still, many are looking ahead to an independent study by the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., examining Edison's effectiveness.

That study is expected be completed late this year.

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