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Great Job! You’re Fired

Companies are usually rewarded when they do a good job. They make more money. They gain more customers. They even win awards from their peers.

But apparently that’s not the case when a company’s business is improving big-city education. In too many cities across the country, education companies that improve test scores and boost student achievement are being penalized for their success, and students are the ones that suffer.

Take Edison Schools Inc., a company that specializes in taking over public schools that fail and improving them. Edison is America’s largest private manager of public schools, teaching 57,000 students in 113 public schools.

Its main “customers” are usually poor inner-city schools with awful test scores. Under Edison’s management, test scores and other academic standards improve.

But its success isn’t always appreciated. In San Francisco, Edison could be fired by the school board because critics in the education establishment think the idea of a for-profit company running public schools harms education.

In late March the school board voted 6-1 to begin the process of revoking Edison’s charter, citing accusations that the school leadership was convincing African-American and special education students to leave the school. (The board provided no substantive evidence to back up the charge.) The school has 90 days to respond.

“When decision-making becomes the purview of a corporation rather than teachers and parents, then you have a problem,” Rudi Faltus, vice president of the city’s teachers union, said in a recent interview.

Listening to Faltus, you’d think Edison ran every school in San Francisco. But Edison runs just one school, the aptly named Edison Elementary. Located in a poor neighborhood, the school was a disaster as recently as 1998–when test scores were declining, seven out of 10 teachers quit their jobs every year (including four principals in one year) and student suspensions ran five times the district average.

The school district even replaced every teacher at Edison Elementary with new ones–the second time it had done this over a 10-year-period–and test scores still didn’t improve.

Edison took over that year and student performance began improving. Last fall, nearly half the school’s fifth graders scored at the national average in math. That’s up from 28 percent in 1999.

When Edison Elementary was under control of the school district, only 2 percent of children could read at grade level. Three years after Edison took over, it’s up to 35 percent.

But despite its success, many board members want Edison out because it’s a business. Never mind that public schools are the equivalent of a billion-dollar monopoly and that Edison Elementary is improving.

To the board, the idea that a company can teach kids well–if not better–than a public school system is unacceptable. Edison officials have vowed to appeal if the board closes the school.

They fear defeat in San Francisco could spill over into other cities. In New York, for example, school Chancellor Harold Levy and the school board initially wanted Edison to run five schools.

But local opponents successfully persuaded parents that a switch to Edison would mean doom for their children, and Edison never got the chance to go to work.

Still, many cities, desperate to improve the performance of their worst schools, are looking at Edison and similar companies to fix them. In Washington, D.C., Edison now runs four charter schools, which have improved their scores on standardized tests by 10 percent in the last year.

Mayor Anthony Williams has said that if student performance at these schools keeps improving, the school board should consider allowing Edison to run regular public schools.

It’s an idea sure to raise the hackles of schools boards, teachers unions and other members of the education establishment, but it’s one worth trying.

As The New York Times pointed out while urging local parents to vote for the Edison takeover, the experiment “offers at least some hope for improvement in five schools whose performance has been abysmal.”

Edison and other private education companies should be given a chance to run public schools, if only because the status quo is a proven failure. The San Francisco school board shouldn’t fire Edison. If anything, it should offer the company a raise. You can’t argue with success, as the saying goes.

But sadly, it looks as if the education establishment can chase it away.