VIDEO: San Francisco's Most Controversial Charter School Enters New Era

Categories: Education

​Edison Charter Academy has a storied history in San Francisco.

It was the woefully underperforming Noe Valley elementary school throughout the '90s. Then-Superintendent Bill Rojas stirred controversy when he handed it over to Edison Schools, Inc., a for-profit company that pledged to take over failing city schools. Edison claimed to educate kids better than the school district could -- and make a profit from it.  

Following schools across the country who have left for-profit management, Edison broke free from the company last year, as we write about in today's cover story, "Schoolhouse Rocked." In large part, the charge to break away was led by Bonnie Senteno, a parent who went on to become the president of the charter academy's board. 

In our video, Senteno explains why the school decided to boot its out-of-town for-profit managers, and how the school is attempting to redefine its reputation in San Francisco. 

Check out the video below:

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During the days when the media spotlight was focused on the battle between Edison Inc. and SFUSD, starting in 2001, I helped create and run a volunteer research-and-information project on Edison. So I need to correct some of Smiley's history of the Edison-SFUSD conflict.

She is inaccurate in referring to "high-profile attacks from the school district" on Edison.

In early 2001, the Board of Ed moved to begin the process that might lead to severing its contract with Edison Inc., which might or might not be described as an "attack," as opposed to responsible governance. But the reason the conflict was "high-profile" was that the Edison Corp. itself chose to fight back furiously in both the courts and the national (even international) media -- and the media was astoundingly obliging in responding to Edison's bids for coverage. SFUSD was subjected to a bizarre flurry of media coverage, including a scathing editorial in the Wall Street Journal (January 2001) and an inaccuracy-laden Page 1 story in the New York Times (March 2001), picked up in the International Herald Tribune – and much more. That glare of publicity was generated by Edison, not SFUSD.

One of the Edison actions that attracted my and other activists' attention, by the way, was the fact that the company sent the media false claims about its test scores in San Francisco.

Smiley said: "As soon as progressives got a majority on the school board, they "went after [Edison] with a pitchfork," as one charter lobbyist puts it. The board drew national media attention by revoking the school's permission to operate in the city."

Actually, the most stalwart and well-informed Edison critics on the BOE at that time were Dan Kelly and Jill Wynns, both considered moderate -- with support from new board members viewed as to their left. The board moved to begin the process that could end in severing its contract with Edison, and as noted, Edison chose to fight back in both the media and the courts. The battle ended in the compromise of Edison's becoming a state charter.

Another key point -- which should have been included in all the media coverage of that time as well as in Smiley's account -- is that Edison's very first client school district – Sherman, Texas – had already severed its Edison contract without attracting media attention, and a number of Edison's other client districts were in the process of doing the same thing SFUSD was – making moves to end the Edison contract. (These included Goldsboro, N.C.; Lansing, Mich.; Wichita, Kansas; Boston; and more.) For whatever reason – likely San Francisco's “land of fruits and nuts” image – Edison Inc. chose to fight its media war against SFUSD exclusively.

Pre-privatization, the Edison School was known as a dumping ground for the district's most challenging students – a situation many viewed as a setup by then-Superintendent Bill Rojas to open the door to privatization. Rojas left SFUSD under a cloud (a number of his deputies were investigated and prosecuted over financial shenanigans) and went to head the Dallas school district, where he brought in as many Edison schools has he could before being fired. (Dallas severed its contract with Edison as well shortly thereafter.)

All those other dissatisfied client districts had the same complaints SFUSD did: dumping of challenging students on other schools, low achievement given that cherry-picking situation, and higher costs than projected. Edison also engaged in a bizarre client-relations strategy: As soon as it signed a contract with a new client and opened a school, it began sending out press releases bashing its client's other schools and touting its own as superior, often (as in SFUSD) using false test score claims. Attacking one's own clients is generally not viewed as a wise business practice in rest of the private sector, so the thinking behind that practice was unclear.

It's resoundingly inaccurate that the Nation “railed against Edison.” In a bizarre departure for both the publication and the author of the article, public-education advocate Peter Schrag, a long feature in the Nation that spring praised Edison Charter Academy as a success -- its point being that the school cost more and that it was showing that better education requires more funding. Presumably Smiley didn't read that article, which I have yellowing in a box in my garage.

After the state charterization, Edison's relationship with the district was limited to landlord-tenant, so the notion that there was an ongoing battle is inaccurate. The district took little notice of the school, outside the Real Estate Department.

I'm happy to clear up these inaccuracies; it's too bad Smiley didn't ask me or someone else involved at that time to go over these details with her before the story ran.

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