July 3rd, 2003

WATCH: Public Schools Inc.

In “Public Schools Inc.,” Learning Matters partnered with Frontline and The New York Times to investigate the intertwined fortunes of Edison Schools and its charismatic, controversial leader, Chris Whittle. Through interviews with educators, administrators, and observers on both sides of the debate — including Whittle himself — this documentary examines whether it is possible to create world-class schools that turn a profit and explores whether the larger-than-life Whittle is Edison’s biggest asset or its greatest liability.

“Public Schools Inc.” follows The Edison Project from its first contract to manage schools in Wichita, Kan., to the present day, visiting some of the most successful — and not so successful — Edison Schools. We speak with numerous principals, administrators, and parents, many of whom express their enthusiasm and support for the Edison model, which includes a longer school day and school year, and incentive pay for teachers and principals.

The documentary also examines some of the problems Edison began to encounter: from resistant teachers’ unions to schools that weren’t meeting expectations to the constant pressure from Wall Street to recruit the number of schools needed to make the company profitable.

The program recounts Whittle’s efforts in the spring of 2002 to take over the beleaguered Philadelphia school system — a move that would have provided enough schools to help make the company profitable finally. The documentary recounts the fierce opposition Edison encountered from unions, parents, and politicians before finally being awarded its largest contract ever. But the Philadelphia blessing would also prove to be a curse: Instead of being awarded a contract to manage 70 or more schools — the number originally discussed — Edison was granted a contract to manage just 20 schools, severely disappointing its already skittish investors.

The news sent Edison stock plummeting from $14 to just $1 in a matter of weeks; ultimately, the company’s stock, which had once traded as high as $38 a share, was selling for just 14 cents.

“A decade of work kind of went up in smoke,” Whittle says. “For me to sit here and say that the loss of my entire net worth was not bothersome? I think it was bothersome. Yeah, it hurt.”

Now, Chris Whittle once again finds himself forced to restructure, refocus, and consolidate in order to keep his big dream alive.

This program received a First Place EWA Award.

Transcript (PDF)

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