I’ve often wondered how it feels to be a reporter at the dual-natured Wall Street Journal. The Journal is one of the finest — if not the finest — sources of business reporting in the country. It’s just the place you want to turn for information on the nation’s economy, not to mention investigative journalism like the discovery of fraud at AremisSoft (in which company officers apparently just made up foreign contracts to pad their numbers) last year. It’s also a pretty good source of general news, although its bread and butter is clearly the business reporting. But the editorial page generally runs, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the gamut of opinion from A to B. The viewpoints are diverse: from Kissingerian fatuousness to Peggy Noonan’s loopiness, from corporate welfare apologists to the occasional conspiracy theorist. The Journal is entitled to write editorials and print op-eds whatever slant it wishes, of course, but it’s a shame that the editorial page doesn’t even try for a semblance of even-handedness. The Edison Project (also known as Edison Schools) is a for-profit school management company started by former Esquire publisher and Channel One founder Chris Whittle, whose Whittle Communications imploded in the early Nineties. The company has been propped up by Gap magnate Donald Fisher, but it continues to have shaky finances. Despite criticisms — that it alienates teachers, that it underserves children with handicaps and special educational needs, that the educational benefits and cost savings it trumpets are overstated — the Edison Project has had successes in turning around schools.
The Philadelphia school system is badly in need of a turnaround. In the ‘94-‘95 school year, twenty-four thousand students missed more than two consecutive weeks of class. On any given school day, almost twenty thousand are absent from school without an excuse. At most Philadelphia high schools, more than half of the students finished in bottom quartile on a state-wide standardized reading exam; at one school, one hundred percent of students did.
It’s hard for me to say that Philadelphia’s schools should be allowed to continue graduating students who are completely unprepared to succeed in the larger world or standing by while massive chunks of the student body drop out. Children — I suspect mostly poor, black children — are being cheated. I have distinct doubts about the ability of private companies to both make a profit and run schools well; I have distinct doubts about what happens to the rest of a public school system once privatization takes hold. But I’d certainly be open to read an exploration of how Edison can help Philadelphia students.
Former Delaware governor and current Journal opinion writer Pete Dupont has other things to tell me.
What is upsetting the blinkered Philadelphia status quo is the very idea that Edison, or some company like it, would have the authority to run the city school system. Jobs are at stake, and patronage and politics, and all these things are more important to the establishment than better-educated students. That the teachers union would take such a position is bad enough; but for the NAACP to align itself with such shameful behavior is a betrayal of its constituency. If this is to be the governing philosophy of Philadelphia education, its children—the vast majority of whom are black—are doomed.
All that attention spent on the interests of Edison’s opponents, but not a single sentence about how Edison — the largest public school management company in America, mind you — drafted the governor’s "devastating report." The Philadelphia public schools certainly sounds like they need fixing. Edison may well employ the people best suited to fix it. But if I accept the report of a blue-ribbon panel of foxes that I’ve appointed to tell me who should guard the henhouse, it’s clear that I’ve already decided on the answer.