Indiana supt. of public instruction Tony Bennett recently told the IndyStar he would not immediately release the names of the five potential takeover operators out to profit from Indiana’s so-called “failing” schools for fear that critics may question the legitimacy behind those doing the bidding. Bennett is also leery of having public discussion of these EMOS.

Yet both the IndyStar and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette report that one operator in the running is EdisonLearning, previously known as Edison Schools, the company which donated $2,000 to Bennett’s supt.race.

Edison first appeared in Indiana when ex-New York congressman Rev. Floyd Flake, then president of Edison and member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), headlined the July 2001 Indianapolis event “Education Reform and the Black Community: Understanding Your Options.” Sponsored by the Indy BAEO, the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Black Expo, the Light of the Christian Church, the Urban Christian Schools Coalition, and the Indianapolis Recorder, this pro-choice celebration was touted by the Heartland Institute, which interviewed Jackie Cissell of the local BAEO branch. That March, Cissell left her job with the charter-operating GEO Foundation, but was still employed with the Indy school choice group, Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust. A hardcore Republican and Mitch Daniels-promoter, Jackie now assistant-directs the Indiana Division of Aging and is the community relations liaison with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

The following year, the Edison/BAEO charter dream materialized in Indiana. In a no-bid contract with Perry Township, Edison arrogantly stamped its name on two Indianapolis schools in 2002 and 2003, the Jeremiah Gray-Edison Elementary School and the Rosa Parks-Edison Elementary School. As Jack Miller, at NUVO, pointed out, the Lilly Foundation, the school choice/vulture philanthropic branch of drug company Eli Lilly, handed a $4.6 million grant to Perry Township to pay for Edison’s services, at a 17 percent higher cost per student than other schools in the district. These two schools are still managed by Edison.

Somewhere around this time, Edison cancelled its agreement with Indianapolis’ Imani School of Excellence, a charter school founded by African American business and religious leaders, after what appears to be lack of funding and the decision to locate the school outside of the IPS area.

Edison got another big break when, in 2004, millionaire and member of Mitch Daniels’ Indiana’s Education Roundtable Christel DeHaan (who also has charter schools in India, Mexico, South Africa, and Venezuela, with a scholarship program in Serbia) reportedly struck a deal with the company to manage the Christel House Academy in Indy for $3 million. It is not known how much Edison actually received since the school did, at some point, terminate its agreement with Edison.

For those who follow the antics of the “school reform movement,” Edison has topped in scandals, schemes, and corruptions. The company has historically slanted and selected data it publicly released to make its failing schools appear to be wonderful, innovative learning environments. Sadly, this is still the least of their problems.

Florida Chief-Changers with No Conscience

Edison’s questionable ties to politicians have been well documented. In 2003, as the Nation’s David Moberg first noted, thanks to Tony Bennett’s fellow chief-changer Jeb Bush, Edison was bailed out when the then-Florida governor bought out its failing stock with teachers’ retirement funding, a mess of a maneuver which has stuck state pensioners to this day with a $182 million investment in a company out to destroy public education and unions.

As Jim Horn has noticed, Edison’s then-president Chris Cerf was named as one of the beneficiaries in the buy out. He now is the chief commissioner of education for New Jersey. As Chris Megerian recently noted, from 1999-2001 New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie worked as lobbyist for a firm which represented Edison Schools in the state, when Cerf was Edison’s general counsel. Both now are setting in place a slash-and-burn privatization plan for New Jersey schools, with hedge-fund managers hurrying to get a piece of the cash. Meanwhile, Christie is roaming the airways in complete bliss over his attack on union workers and their pensions.

Tony Bennett is now a part of this shady world. Chief of Chiefs for Change, Jeb Bush’s anti-public education group, the Indiana supt. of public instruction surely will be cahooting with Mr. Cerf on everything from charter schools to national voucher crusades.

Edison’s Plans for Child Labor and Other Shady Practices

As recent as 2007, Edison’s new E2 Design Sketch called for forcing child labor on students enrolled in its schools, since it would help the company’s bottom line. According to Edison, custodians and lunch workers should be fired and replaced with unpaid students. Supposedly, Chris Whittle, Edison’s founder, even boasted to Colorado school principals that 600 unpaid students in a school could take the place of 75 salaried workers. It is unclear what became of this plan, but parents groups across the country were rightfully more than outraged.

In fact, outrage has haunted Edison.  As Gerald Bracey detailed in What You Should Know About the War Against America’s Public Schools, despite protests in 2001 rightfully directed at Edison by the Philadelphia NAACP, parents, and educators, Governor Mark Schweiker went against even mayor John Street and representative Chaka Fattah and handed over the schools to Edison. Lawsuits followed, but Edison was awarded twenty schools to run (113-114), even though test scores did not come close to living up to what Edison promised. Eventually, in 2002, the SEC cited Edison for faulty accounting techniques, and school districts across the U.S. quickly severed their ties to the company (114-115). Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 2008 that Philly was able to set in place a plan to rid itself of EdisonLearning.

The company may have changed names in 2008, but its free-market slash across the face of low-income students is still working overtime. Here are just a few stories describing what has been occurring under Edison’s watch, both past and present, across the country:

Public outcry over administrative-led student cheating and a school principal sex-scandal with a student in 2005 forced Edison out of a district in Pennsylvania.

When a 12-year old boy was raped in an Edison School, the company claimed in court that it is not responsible for student safety, yet quickly settled the lawsuit against it brought by the boy’s family.

Nineteen Students were hospitalized in St. Louis after Edison’s security force randomly pepper-sprayed a crowd of students witnessing a hallway fight. In fact, Edison has lost contracts for its lack of doing sufficient background checks on employees.

Complaints were filed against EdisonLearning in Missouri with the state board of education last year, when two kindergarteners requiring special education services were repeatedly suspended from school.

Edison likes to leave schools with enormous deficits, as it did with the Linear Leadership Academy in Louisiana, which was in the red over $300,000 until the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association dissolved its contract with Edison.

Now that the Indiana DOE has slid the corporate-celebrity-sponsored Mind Trust $680,000 to attempt to make it impossible for Indiana’s “failing” schools to return to local school board control, the news that EdisonLearning is in the bidding becomes even more disturbing.

Corporatists Not Wanted

My guess is the other takeover operators Bennett, Daniels, and the Indiana DOE are considering are no better, or even worse, than EdisonLearning. Although I have no proof of it, I suppose Daniels’ buddies at Imagine Schools are probably also in the running. Besides pointing out that Edison funds the hedge-fund managers-operated Democrats for Education Reform and the politicians DFER supports, education scholar Ken Libby once said (after shock over Arne Duncan and the DOE handing almost $500,000 to EdisonLearning) that EdisonLearning was “probably the only charter operator that could challenge Imagine Schools in a contest of pure corruption and greed.” Merely google Journal Gazette’s Karen Francisco and Imagine Schools and you’ll see the cronyism, corruption, and cockiness this EMO has perpetrated in Indiana and elsewhere.

To say that parents, teachers, and other in the Hoosier community should have serious questions about both Edison and Imagine is a vast understatement.

With evidence that school takeovers across this country are covers for the displacement of poor residents from their communities, the privatization of urban housing, and the ultimate goal of complete corporatization of public education, Bennett is right in one regard: the less the public knows about these schemes the better chance he has in silencing public outcries and disruption. Frankly, I hope that the parents, teachers, students, and citizens of this state run Edison out of town as they did with good old fashion hostility in 2001, when the vulture company was scooping around Allen County streets waiting for schools to drop their free public money. That, too, goes for all five companies on Bennett’s bidding list. To use a Gerald Bracey word, it’s time to give Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett the “donnybrook” they deserve in the public arena. Let the protests, letters, and lawsuits take over before their “takeover state” begins.

For parents, teachers, and agitators wanting more articles on Edison’s disasters, scroll down the page of Parents Advocating School Accountability’s website for many article links. For recent newspaper articles detailing Edison’s schemes, please see Sharon Higgins’ postings at Charter School Scandals. Besides referencing pages 104-117 in Bracey’s book noted above, readers would highly benefit from the in-depth analysis and history of Edison’s antics in DePaul professor Kenneth Saltman’s 2005 book, The Edison Schools: Corporate Schooling and the Assault on Public Education. A special “thank you” to Jane Ruppel Nicholls for tracking down EdisonLearning’s donations to Tony Bennett.
Doug Martin

Doug Martin

Doug Martin is a Walt Whitman scholar, poet, fiction writer, editor, musician (the Delicious Militia), and teacher.

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