Parents Save SF Charter School

Published August 1, 2001

Culminating months of effort, hundreds of largely low-income, minority parents whose children attend San Francisco’s Edison Charter Academy were successful in persuading a majority of the city’s board of education to keep the school under the management of Edison Schools, Inc. rather than forcing it back under the authority of the San Francisco Unified School District.

On June 28, the San Francisco Board of Education voted 4-2 to transfer sponsorship of the elementary school from the district to the California State Board of Education, whose president is charter school advocate Reed Hastings.

Despite the jubilation that greeted the vote, the victory came at a high price. The school board imposed increased costs on Edison, froze the charter school in its current first-through-fifth-grade configuration, and barred the establishment of further charter schools through the district. (See sidebar, “Deal Forced on Edison, Despite Meritless Charges.”)

Arguing with Success

This was not a case of a local school board deliberating on what to do about an underperforming school. On the contrary, the Edison charter school clearly had succeeded where the public school district repeatedly had failed. Off-the-cuff comments by school board members made it clear they expected Edison’s soaring test scores to continue to rise and to prompt questions about why schools operated by the district could not produce similar improvements.

The school board’s attempt to close down a highly successful school became a cause célèbre which drew interest locally, nationally, and even internationally in Britain’s The Economist.

Under school district management, the school–coincidentally named Edison–was one of San Francisco’s worst, with test scores among the lowest in the state. It was a dangerous and poorly maintained place where toilets didn’t work and students got beat up in the halls. It underwent two reconstitutions–where all staff members were replaced–but both were flops.

In June 1998, the school was reborn as a charter school under the management of the New York-based, for-profit firm of Edison Schools, Inc. Teacher salaries were raised and order was established. Test scores rose and parents began to seek out the school. Enrollment soared.

But last November’s election produced a majority of school board members who opposed any use of the profit motive in public education. They declared their intent to revoke Edison’s charter.

“I don’t see any way I would support this charter because I’m philosophically opposed to for-profit management,” board president Jill Wynns told the San Jose Mercury News.

Trumped-Up Charges

But the board had a problem. California’s education code permits a district to revoke a charter if the charter school has failed to meet the “pupil outcomes” specified in the charter, but under Edison’s management, the percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level had risen from 8 to 26 percent.

In March, the board found a way to trump the facts. It voted to give notice of their intent to revoke the Edison charter based on charges of racism, discrimination, threats to teachers, and incomplete financial reporting.

At the next meeting of the school board, hundreds of parents and children–mostly Hispanic and African-American–showed up to demonstrate their support for the school, warning the board of the damage that closing the school would do to their children. Many of the parents testified to the board in Spanish, the only language they knew, causing some Edison opponents to say that “those people who don’t even speak English” had been “brainwashed” into thinking their children were getting a better education. This left many observers shaking their heads in disbelief at the board’s charges of racism.

Parents Persist . . . and Win

The board tried to ignore the expressions of support. Wynns made a show of reading the newspaper during some of the testimony by parents, despite having won her office with a campaign promise to listen to the public. Subsequent school board meetings were scheduled in rarely used auditoriums, and meeting times were changed at the last minute–actions that seemed designed to discourage participation by parents.

But hundreds showed up at meeting after meeting, kept informed by an Internet and phone tree network set up by San Francisco education reformer Gary Larson of Parents to Save the Edison Charter.

The parents’ persistence, plus the unfavorable national and international news coverage, eventually got through to the board. On June 21, a defensive Wynns was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “We could revoke the contract, shut down the school, and send the kids other places. But we’re not that cruel and thoughtless, even though people say we are.”

The enthusiastic support of parents in San Francisco for an Edison-managed public school stands in sharp contrast to the tepid reaction of parents in New York City to the same idea earlier this year. School choice in the Bay City is a concrete reality for parents; in the Big Apple, it’s still an abstraction.

Alan Bonsteel, M.D. is president of California Parents for Educational Choice. His email address is [email protected].