Education Entrepreneurs Gather in Evanston

Published October 1, 2004

With a theme of “Education for Tomorrow: Entrepreneurs Transforming K-16 Education,” the 14th annual EDVentures Conference of the Education Industry Association (EIA) was held on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Illinois on August 4-6, 2004. A range of general session speakers included top education policymakers, leaders in school reform, and advocates for tutoring practitioners.

Dr. Gene Hickok, deputy secretary of education for the U.S. Department of Education, who spoke at last year’s conference in Boston, was welcomed back as the keynote speaker. Hickok is a long-time advocate of education reform and a strong supporter of education entrepreneurs. He brought accolades and encouragement for EIA from Education Secretary Rod Paige and President George W. Bush.

“The principles behind No Child Left Behind are beginning to challenge the education industry as we have known it,” said Hickok, noting the law “makes it difficult to close your eyes to a problem.”

The school board in St. Louis knew they had a problem but didn’t know how big it was when they brought in corporate turn-around specialist William Roberti from Alvarez and Marsal, Inc. to act as CEO of the district’s operations. As Roberti recounted to the conference audience, he quickly found the district was on the verge of bankruptcy, facing a $75 million year-end deficit and a near-term cash shortfall of $99 million out of a $450 million budget.

Roberti spent a year leading a team of private managers in reforming the management systems of the St. Louis Public Schools, saving the district from bankruptcy, putting it on a sound financial footing, rationalizing operations in its 113 schools, and creating a framework for long-term success for its 37,000 students. The turn-around effort may well be the most dramatic example to date of a public-private partnership in American education.

“While St. Louis may be somewhat unique in terms of the severity of the crisis, there are … hundreds of school districts across the country that are struggling to cope with many of the same issues,” said Roberti.

A subsequent general session speaker, Dr. Michael Bakalis, agreed with Roberti’s assessment, saying, “This kind of mismanagement is rampant in public education.”

Bakalis is president and CEO of American Quality Schools, a nonprofit organization that operates charter schools in Chicago. He is also a professor at the Keller School of Business Management at Northwestern University and a former Illinois state superintendent of education.

Steve Cony, president of Communications Counselors LLC, brought a change of pace to the conference with a humor-laced presentation on promoting educational services. If you want to be a successful educational entrepreneur, he noted, you need clients. He then gave an account of “How to Get Heard, How to Get Believed, and How to Get Chosen,” delivering thousands of dollars’ worth of promotional consultation in a 45-minute session.

A pre-conference session also provided four hours of free legal advice from Fisher and Phillips LLC, one of the country’s foremost legal firms specializing in school and business law. Attorneys Suzanne Bogdan and Jane McFetridge reviewed the “Ten Major Legal Concerns for the Education Executive.”

EIA was founded by Chris Yelich, Wayne Jennings, Senn Brown, and the late James Boyle in 1990 as the American Association of Education Practitioners and Providers. The group’s mission was “private ventures for the public good,” and its aim was for members “to put the needs of students at the center of the business plan.” The first EDVentures Conference was in 1991, when 16 people attended. This year, there were 350 attendees.

With more than 800 corporate and individual members, EIA is now the leading professional association for private providers of education services, suppliers, and other private organizations who are stakeholders in education. While about 10 percent of EIA’s members are large, multi-national corporations like Edison Schools, most are small business owners, with some 60 percent operating local tutoring services.

The growth and transformation of EIA over the past 15 years has been due in no small measure to its executive director during that period, Chris Yelich. This year’s conference marked a transition of leadership for EIA as she stepped down and ceremonially delivered the “keys to the office” to Steve Pines, who was named executive director-elect in January after a national search for Yelich’s replacement. Another transition for EIA is the move of its headquarters from Watertown, Wisconsin to the Washington, DC area.

Paul H. Seibert ([email protected]) is director of Charter Consultants, Inc., a division of The Governor French Academy, Inc., of Belleville, Illinois.