By Caroline Grannan, parent activist
It’s been 15 years this month since the Edison Schools sh*tstorm hit San Francisco and I got deeply involved as a mommy volunteer advocate, and stayed that way for a long time. Edison Schools Inc. was a for-profit company that sold itself to school districts as a manager of high-poverty public schools, mostly as charters. Edison was publicly traded on the NASDAQ, which meant investors could buy stock and expected to be paid dividends from the public-school funding that Edison received — it expected to have extra money through the efficiencies of the private sector.
Critics (like me) who said that if there’s any extra money in running high-poverty public schools it should be put back into meeting children’s needs, rather than being paid out to shareholders, were derided by the mainstream press as “ideologues” (even in reporters’ g*d voices in hard news — shout-out to Kate Zernike at the NYT, for one).
Edison promoted itself with a string of juked stats and flat-out falsehoods, and the flattering, unquestioning press coverage opened my eyes — I was on a long sabbatical (as an at-home mommy) after many years in the newsroom. It was dismaying to learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of open disdain from the press (even in straight news coverage), as a volunteer advocate challenging a powerful operation, and it changed me as a person and a journalist.
Edison ran dozens of schools across the country at its peak (the exact number was never clear because the company falsely inflated the figure as a standard practice). But the January 2001 sh*tstorm centered on SFUSD over its one Edison charter school for reasons that still aren’t clear to me. After a vast amount of coverage at the time, Edison faded out of the news, so I bet people are wondering what happened to that school (or maybe not). Well, here’s the story. At some point since, the school community managed to separate itself from Edison Inc., in an action it viewed as throwing off the yoke of the corporate oppressor. Now it’s run by its own board as an independent charter school. The parents at the school who urge incoming families to consider enrolling caution them not to worry when they Google, because the shocking material they’ll find doesn’t represent the school as it is today.
The company itself gradually fizzled away, and is now pretty much invisible. It’s no longer traded on the NASDAQ after a stock buyback long ago, and it never was profitable when it was publicly traded. At its high amid the flattering press coverage, the stock was $38.25 a share, and it fell to 14 cents after Edison started getting more skeptical coverage a few months later (yes, those numbers are correct). I think the stock buyback was at about $1.75 a share.
I have to add my undying appreciation for my friends and fellow SF advocates Dana Woldow, Jill Wynns and Margaret Brodkin.