Chris Whittle is the Uber entrepreneur of for-profit education. Back in the 1990s, he launched the Edison Project, assuming that George H.W. Bush would be re-elected and would get a voucher plan through Congress. That didn’t happen, so Edison sought contracts to run low-performing schools. Lots of push back from districts and parents. The share price plummeted. To learn th3 story of Edison, read Samuel Abrams’ excellent book, Education and the Commercial Mindset.

After the failure of the Edison Project, Whittle raised many millions to start a for-profit private school called avenues that was to have locations around the world. He hired educators with long experience in elite private schools and had splashy openings in Manhattan and in China. tuition was over $50,000 a year. In 2015, he and the board had differences, and he moved on.

Now Whittle is opening a new international for-profit chain, and openings are planned in multiple locations, including the District of Columbia, Brooklyn, and international locations. As the roll out of the new chain proceeds, with glitz and glamour, the board of Avenues is suing Whittle for $5.8 million that he allegedly owes them.


Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal wrote:

As he wooed hundreds of guests with cocktails, mini lobster rolls and goat cheese bonbons at a reception in Brooklyn, entrepreneur Chris Whittle made an audacious claim: There are no world-class K-12 schools, anywhere.

And he intends to change that.

“Our mission is to actually create the first modern school,” Mr. Whittle told a crowd last week at the launch of a downtown site of Whittle School & Studios. His new for-profit enterprise aims to create one school with 36 campuses world-wide in a decade, with a shared curriculum and “a collective intelligence,” according to its stylish 118-page brochure.

At 72 years old, Mr. Whittle is known for marketing prowess, bold visions and major setbacks in his quest to build educational empires. He says he has raised more than $1 billion for Whittle School, including funds from investors and real-estate expenses borne by firms that construct and own its campuses. Its first sites started operating this fall in Washington, D.C., and Shenzhen, China. The Brooklyn venue, to open next fall, will be the third.

“It’s an ambitious, risky venture,” said Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University. “It’s classic Chris Whittle, to throw a long pass and attempt to run under it for a touchdown.”

Mr. Whittle, a former publisher of Esquire magazine, co-founded Edison Schools, a company that aimed to bring private-sector efficiencies to managing taxpayer-funded schools in the 1990s. The company helped usher in the charter school movement, but ran into financial problems.

In 2002, Edison Schools was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said it inaccurately described aspects of its business in SEC filings. The company settled, saying it would add an internal audit function, without admitting or denying the SEC findings. It was taken private and renamed, and Mr. Whittle left.

Mr. Whittle’s first attempt at launching a global school in New York fizzled in the 2008 financial crisis. Then he co-founded Avenues: The World School, a for-profit institution in Manhattan, in 2012 with a pitch of 15 campuses world-wide by 2021. But he left Avenues in 2015. So far, the school has only three sites, including São Paulo and Shenzhen, China, plus a new online program with 20 students…

Whittle School plans capacity for 90,000 students in 15 countries, with much of its leadership from China, India and the U.S. “We were building from scratch an organization that was very intentionally bi- and tri-cultural,” Mr. Whittle said. “It’s been very challenging.”

His team includes such high-profile educators as Benno Schmidt, the former Yale president who worked with him at Edison Schools and Avenues; Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; and Jim Hawkins, former head of the elite Harrow School in London. Designing the schools is Renzo Piano, architect of the Whitney Museum.

Such big-ticket staff and glossy marketing are expensive, said Jonathan Knee, a Columbia Business School professor who called Whittle the “Wizard of Ed” in his book “Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education.” Mr. Knee questioned whether the school will be sustainable, given Mr. Whittle’s lavish spending.

“This is a startup that is going to be losing money for a long time,” Mr. Knee said. “It’s sort of breathtaking, given the track record, that he could get away with using his name as the brand.”

Mr. Whittle says his investors take the long view: “This is what I would call patient and long-term capital.”

Thomas Franco, an early investor, said he was drawn by Mr. Whittle’s expertise and deep networks in education. “Chris is a catalyst for constructive change in an industry that is very ripe for disruption,” he said. “The obvious challenges are the execution risks but so far the team has demonstrated an ability to manage these.”

Mr. Whittle puts the price of launching the Brooklyn site at more than $300 million, including the developers’ costs. It involves renovating 10 floors of the old Macy’sbuilding on Livingston Street, with a roof terrace, theater, boarding facilities and 16-foot ceilings to inspire creativity.

It advertises hands-on, personalized learning and Mandarin lessons from age 3 to help children compete in a fast-changing global economy. In an echo of Avenues, it promises students will be able to hop among campuses to study abroad. New York already has several established for-profit schools with sister sites in other countries.

With its first open house for parents on Thursday, Whittle School is soliciting applications for preschool and kindergarten next fall. Tuition and fees cost $49,500. Mr. Whittle says the bill for older grades, to start in fall 2021, will reflect the city’s other independent schools, which can top $56,000 yearly.

Some parents are leery of the model. Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, cautions that seeking profit from tuition doesn’t fit with an educational mission, or putting as much money as possible into instruction.

“There is a lot of opacity” in the business operations, Mr. Abrams said. “You have to trust, in the case of a complex service, that the provider is going to do what was promised.”

Mr. Whittle says parents care about innovation far more than nonprofit status. “There is no way we could assemble these resources philanthropically,” he said.

The new head of the Brooklyn site, Larry Weiss, has led two nonprofit private schools, Brooklyn Friends and Saint Ann’s. He says Whittle School’s resources will liberate him from the onerous job of raising donations. “It’s an enormous relief for parents, who end up besieged by fundraising” at nonprofits, Mr. Weiss said. “People get angry with each other. People get disappointed.”

Joyce Szuflita, admissions consultant at NYC School Help, says she will watch how the school fares before recommending it. Parents “occasionally grumble that a for-profit school will be less choosy because they have to fill seats,” she said. “Any new school, for profit or not-for-profit, will have this problem.”

Another consultant, Victoria Goldman, says she is happy a new school is coming to Brooklyn, which lacks enough options. “This may not be for everybody,” she said, “but it will be on everybody’s list” to check out.

Some parents are curious. Ari Goldstein, a real-estate executive with a baby and a 3-year-old in Brooklyn Heights, wants to explore public schools nearby as well as Whittle School. He says he likes that it has “the capacity to step back and think about what is the best educational environment, and create something from scratch.”


In a follow up article, Brody of the Wall Street Journal described the legal battle between Whittle’s previous venture, Avenues, and Whittle. The board is prepared to force Whittle to sell his lavish East Hampton estate on Long Island, valued at more than $100 million, to settle his debt.

Chris Whittle, the education entrepreneur who is launching a new for-profit global school in New York City, has been mired in a legal battle over his multimillion-dollar personal debt to his previous local startup, Avenues.

Legal filings by the school’s company, Avenues Global Holdings, say it lent its co-founder, Mr. Whittle, a sum in 2013 that grew to more than $13 million in 2017. He didn’t repay it on time, and the dispute landed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan in 2018.

Officials at Avenues and Mr. Whittle agreed this month that he still owed it roughly $5.8 million, records show. Avenues is one of the city’s biggest independent schools, with annual tuition topping $56,000.

Avenues officials said Wednesday that Mr. Whittle still hadn’t paid the debt and that they are seeking to force a sale of his estate in Long Island’s East Hampton, which they say was appraised at more than $100 million. It sits near the Atlantic Ocean with a view of Georgica Pond.

“Chris has failed to meet his commitments to Avenues,” said Jeff Clark, president of Avenues: The World School, by email. “Despite giving him many chances and time to cure this, we are now pursuing other remedies because of his track record of unkept promises.”

A representative for Mr. Whittle said Wednesday that “Chris anticipates paying the final $5.8 million due over the next couple of weeks.”

Mr. Whittle is known for his bold visions and major setbacks in a series of educational projects. His new business is Whittle School & Studios, which he says will become a single private school with 36 campuses world-wide in a decade. One site is scheduled to open in Brooklyn next autumn.

In a 2017 arbitration filing, Avenues Global Holdings said it lent him about $10.8 million in 2013 “to ameliorate his dire personal financial situation so he could focus on his work for Avenues.” The filing was included as an exhibit in Avenues’ 2018 legal action against Mr. Whittle. He resigned in 2015 because of disagreements with the company’s leadership, and his outstanding loan grew to more than $13 million in 2017, the arbitration filing said.

In his separation agreement, he promised he wouldn’t engage in school operations in New York City and other major cities until November 2018, according to the arbitration filing. Avenues accused him of violating that noncompete clause and his confidentiality agreement by working on the Whittle School before the clause allowed. Some Chinese officials mistook Whittle School representatives for those of Avenues, the arbitration filing said.

Whittle School’s business plan reflects Mr. Whittle’s “effort to copy wholesale the Avenues model in direct violation of his covenants,” the arbitration filing said.

Mr. Whittle vehemently denied violating the noncompete and confidentiality clauses, his representative said Wednesday, noting that the settlement agreement required that he pay only the loan amount due, and no additional damages. The representative said the allegation that Chinese officials mistook anyone from Whittle School as being part of Avenues was never substantiated.

Mr. Whittle has said he has raised more than $1 billion for Whittle School, including funds from investors and real-estate expenses borne by firms that construct and own its campuses.

Mr. Whittle is a former publisher of Esquire magazine and co-founded Edison Schools, a company that helped usher in the charter-school movement in the 1990s but ran into financial problems.

He went on to help start Avenues, which opened in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2012.

Benson Lu, a Whittle School board member, said he was aware of Mr. Whittle’s dispute with his former company. “I don’t think this will be important to parents,” Mr. Lu said. “Parents care more about the quality of education and faculty members.”