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October 31, 2014

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Did School District get its $100 million worth from for-profit company?

When Edison came to town in 2001, the for-profit education management company promised to deliver dramatic improvements in test scores among Las Vegas’ lowest-performing students.

Thirteen years later, the Clark County School District has forked over $103.6 million in taxpayer money to Edison with mixed results to show for it.

Last month, Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky announced that the nation’s fifth-largest school system would sever its ties with the nation’s largest school management company by the end of this year.

Skorkowsky’s decision ends one of the longest and most expensive school privatization experiments in the country. With Edison on its way out, education observers are left questioning: Was the pricey school operator worth the money?

“They did show some improvement at the schools,” School Board member Carolyn Edwards told KNPR. “But really, the question for me comes down to: Was it a good return on our investment? I’m not sure that it was.”

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The Edison school model, named for Thomas Edison, reinvented school privatization by combining elements from school voucher programs and charter school management companies.

Instead of forcing districts to cede total control of public schools to a private company, Edison partnered with districts to educate students in so-called Edison “partnership” schools.

Like school vouchers, in which taxpayer money is given to families to send their children to private schools, districts allocated state per-pupil funding and federal grant money to Edison partnership schools.

In return, Edison operated the schools.

By the early 2000s, Edison had scored multimillion-dollar contracts to operate public schools in major cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. At its height, Edison operated more than 150 public schools in more than 20 states.

Edison schools are highly structured, using similar textbooks, instructional techniques and daily schedules. Schools have an hour of additional instruction time, teachers are given time to coordinate and parents are required to attend four parent-teacher conferences a year.

Supporters say the model can save public education, but critics decry the “cookie-cutter approach” to education and are leery of having a private company running public schools.

The concept of bringing outside people into schools was very new in 2000,” Edison Learning spokesman Michael Serpe said. “There has always been that sense that the local community has the best sense of what is the best means of educating their community. We’ve had to fight that.”

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In 2001, the Clark County School Board approved Edison’s initial five-year contract. The company was given $30 million to operate seven campuses: West Middle School and Cahlan, Crestwood, Lincoln, Lynch, Park and Ronnow elementary schools.

Immediately, Edison was greeted with protests from community activists, teachers union members and several political leaders. The Nevada State Education Association launched an unsuccessful lawsuit to try to stop Edison from “taking over” schools and “kidnapping” students.

Some principals and teachers also pushed back against Edison.

“There were quite a few people who were fighting it,” said Elizondo-Edison Principal Keith France. “There was extra paperwork, and expectations were higher for Edison. People were just not going to do it. They wanted to wait it out, but it took.”

The profitability of Edison’s model was questioned soon after it arrived in Clark County. In 2002, Edison’s stock, EDSN — which began publicly trading on NASDAQ in 1999 — plummeted from a high of $40 per share to a low of 14 cents per share.

That year, Edison was rebuked by the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to complete an audit on time, and a New York law firm filed a class-action suit on behalf of shareholders, claiming the company misrepresented its earnings. In 2003, Edison was taken private again.

•••

Even as major urban school districts in Baltimore and Philadelphia cut ties with Edison several years ago, Clark County officials stuck with the company.

Then the county faced its own fiscal troubles with the company.

Early on, Edison’s $7.7 million in philanthropic commitments to Clark County were paid late. By 2006, the School District discovered it had overpaid Edison more than $5 million.

Displeased with Edison’s work at West Middle School, the district took back control of it in 2006. Four years later, as a result of federal turnaround efforts in Clark County, Elizondo Elementary School was handed over to Edison.

The county’s tenuous relationship with the company came to a head in 2012. After more than a decade of tepid results, the School Board demanded that performance measures be added to Edison’s contract. If Edison failed to meet any of these benchmarks, the School Board warned it wouldn’t renew the contract.

The Edison schools showed their biggest gains the following year, but it wasn’t enough to save the contract.

•••

Between 2002 and 2012, Edison’s math proficiency scores jumped 35 points, compared with 19 points for the district. Nearly three-quarters of Edison students were proficient in math, edging out 71 percent in the district.

In reading, Edison’s test scores jumped 23 points, compared with 19 points for the district. However, a smaller percentage of Edison students were proficient in reading — 58 percent, as opposed to 65 percent in the district.

“If you’re an outsider looking in, I get it. It still looks terrible,” France said. “But look where we came from. We made double-digit gains, which wouldn’t have been possible without Edison.”

Edison officials pointed to the School District’s difficult student population and transiency as major obstacles it had to overcome to make these gains. More than 80 percent of students at Edison schools come from low-income families.

“When a school district reaches out to an organization like us, they’re not hiring them to come in and work with the highest-achieving schools,” Serpe said. “These were very challenged schools.”

School Board member Linda Young, who represents four out of the seven Edison schools, said she believes Edison did its job at these schools. The school culture has changed, she said. Teachers use regular test data to drive classroom instruction, and parent surveys have found that families see Edison’s benefits, she said.

“Yes, I think it worked,” Young said. “In the end, I do think it was worth it.”

School District officials are now working out a transition plan for Edison schools. Next year, the district plans to give similar support that Edison gave, such as extended school days and additional professional development.

But what will happen to these schools after Edison leaves remains a big question. Edison principals and district officials say they’ve learned a lot from Edison’s instructional model. These principals and teachers will carry Edison’s best practices to other campuses, eventually making it across the entire district, they said.

“Our principals have built capacity with Edison over the last decade,” said Mike Barton, the district’s chief student achievement officer. “They’ve learned a lot and can keep it going.”

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