The November 8 announcement of record results from the two most significant players in the for-profit K-12 schools marketplace was completely overshadowed by Vice President Al Gore’s refusal to concede defeat to Texas Governor George W. Bush in the early hours of that day, and by the resounding defeat of voucher initiatives in California and Michigan.
But the first-quarter reports from Edison Schools Inc. and Nobel Learning Communities Inc. make it clear the two companies have developed successful working models for the for-profit operation of K-12 schools that provide alternatives to the accepted norm of government ownership and operation.
Nobel Learning Communities
For Media, Pennsylvania-based Nobel, the largest operator of private schools in the nation as well as an operator of charter and special education schools, revenues for the fiscal quarter ended September 30, 2000, increased 20 percent to a record $32.7 million from $27.3 million a year earlier. The quarter’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), an operating cash flow indicator, increased 14 percent to a record $2.2 million in a summer quarter, versus $1.9 million in the previous year.
Other financial highlights for Nobel’s first quarter included:
- School operating profit for all schools increased 16 percent to $3.4 million, up from $2.9 million in the previous year.
- Operating profit for schools in operation for at least one year increased 35 percent over the previous year.
- Nobel opened 13 new schools since June and enrolled 1,516 new students in those schools.
During the first quarter, Nobel increased the number of schools it owns and/or manages to 162, consisting of 139 private schools, 19 special education and specialty schools, and four charter schools. Located in 15 states, the 162 schools have a combined capacity of over 26,000 students and currently serve nearly 25,000.
The company provides contracted special education services to an additional 60 charter schools through its strategic partner, Total Education Solutions. Nobel recently announced a strategic alliance with the South Ocean Development Corporation, the largest operator of private schools in China. (See sidebar.)
“Our Company has to meet two bottom lines; one for our shareholders who invest their equity dollars, and one for our parents who invest their tuition dollars,” noted Daryl Dixon, president and COO of Nobel. “We know if we fail either, we fail both. It is equally important at Nobel to continue reporting positive financial results, as well as for our students to continue performing above grade level.”
Average test scores at Nobel schools for the last school year were significantly above the national norms for each grade level. Average achievement scores for Nobel’s eighth-grade students in both reading and math were at post-high school levels.
For New York City-based Edison, the nation’s leading private manager of public schools, revenues for its fiscal quarter ending September 30, 2000 increased 57 percent to $64.8 million, compared to $44.1 million a year earlier. Enrollment increased to a record 57,000 students in 113 schools, up from 37,500 students in 79 schools last year. Edison’s basic and diluted loss per share improved to $0.43 this quarter from $0.46 for the same period last year.
The company also reported an improvement in gross site margins to 6.6 percent from 5.2 percent last year, and a reduction in the percentage of total revenues spent on headquarters and pre-opening costs from 31.4 percent last year to 26.2 percent for the first quarter.
For the 1999-2000 academic year, Edison students posted achievement gains on norm- and criterion-referenced exams of 5 percentiles and 7 percentage points respectively.
“We’re particularly pleased with our ongoing progress toward profitability,” said Chris Whittle, the company’s founder and CEO. “This is all the more impressive when you take into account that our first quarter has only two months of revenue and it is the period where most of our startup costs are incurred.”
Edison Schools opened its first four schools in August 1995 and has grown rapidly since then, now managing 113 public schools with a total enrollment of approximately 57,000 students. Through contracts with local school districts and public charter school boards, Edison assumes educational and operational responsibility for individual schools in return for per-pupil funding that is generally comparable to spending in other public schools in the area. The company’s curriculum and school design were developed over the course of three years of intensive research by a team of leading educators and scholars.
While privatization brings new competition to public schools, it also brings new competition to private companies. When New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy asked for proposals from private sector firms to manage some of the city’s worst-performing schools last year, 14 companies and nonprofit organizations from around the country responded with proposals, including one from Edison to convert 45 public schools to charter schools by September 2003. Another proposal came from a new competitor in the public school management arena: Advantage Schools Inc., a Boston-based company that hitherto had focused on charter school management.
Less successful at developing a viable working model in the for-profit education business was the TesseracT Group Inc., which on October 6 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection against its creditors.
The school management company, formerly known as Education Alternatives Inc., managed public schools in Hartford, Connecticut, Baltimore, Maryland, and Dade County, Florida, before centering its attention on operating charter schools, its own private schools, and preschools. Amid mounting financial losses, TesseracT sold two of its charter schools to Nobel last June.