Samuel Abrams is the leading national authority on the history of Chris Whittle and the Edison Project. His book Education and the Commercial Mindset recounts the story of the Edison Project, its highs, its lows, its shape shifting.

Abrams was a teacher in a public high school in Manhattan until he earned his doctorate. Now he is director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In this post, he updates the status of Edison.

EdisonLearning Terminated in Chicago

EdisonLearning, the for-profit school management company, is a shrinking shadow of its once prominent self. Launched with much fanfare in 1991 as the Edison Project and taken public as a Wall Street darling by Merrill Lynch in 1999 as Edison Schools, the company changed its name a second time to EdisonLearning in 2008. At its height, the company in 2003 managed 133 schools enrolling 80,000 students in cities across the country. The company is now down to running two credit-recovery centers in Ohio and six alternative schools in Florida.

The latest bad news for the company, reported Chalkbeat in September, came in Chicago. After five years of running four credit-recovery centers in the Windy City, the company saw its contract terminated. School district officials concluded that students at the company’s schools “weren’t receiving enough in-person instruction and that its online curriculum offered mostly low-level tasks.”

In addition to faulting EdisonLearning for inadequate instruction, district officials took EdisonLearning to task for charging its own schools significant fees to use the company’s software. One official on this account, according to Chalkbeat, derided the company as a “money factory.”

Such criticism dovetails with censure of the company by district officials as well as former employees in Ohio, as reported by ProPublica in 2015, for aggressive marketing and for overstating attendance to collect per-pupil funding from the state.

Transforming Edison into a profitable operation has been an unending enterprise, as documented in the book Education and the Commercial Mindset(2016). The company, as the Edison Project, was initially slated to run a national network of for-profit private schools. But that plan hinged on the introduction of vouchers. With Bill Clinton’s defeat of George H.W. Bush in 1992, vouchers stood no chance of becoming a national reality in the near future. The company accordingly transmuted into a subcontractor, selling its management services to municipalities as well as charter boards to run schools.

This new model led to substantial growth and much support on Wall Street. When Merrill Lynch took Edison Schools public in 1999, the company was valued at $900 million. But with growth came mounting losses. Upon reaching its peak with 133 schools in 2003, the company shifted gears to focus more on providing school districts with professional development, curriculum guidance, and computer software for assessing student progress. The company moved further in this direction in 2008 when it changed its name for a second time to EdisonLearning.

In 2013, the company was forced to split. Its owner, Liberty Partners, a private equity group based in New York that purchased the company in 2003 for $91 million, was winding down. In what amounted to a fire sale, Liberty managed to sell only EdisonLearning’s supplementary educational services division to Catapult Learning, based in Camden, NJ, for $18 million. The remainder of the company trudged on in managing 11 schools, four online academies, and 13 credit-recovery centers. As Chalkbeat reported, with the nullification of the contract in Chicago, EdisonLearning is now down to two credit-recovery centers and six alternative schools.