Revolution in progress.

Position:Chris Whittle - 10th Annual Renegades - Cover Story
SUMMARY

Whittle Communications founder Chris Whittle decided to create high-quality schools that will be funded by tax money, but will be operated by a private entity after his media company had crested and he needed new challenges. Skeptics said that the idea was not feasible, but Whittle raised $75 million and in 1995, the first of what his Edison Project schools was opened in Massachusetts, Michigan,... (see full summary)

 
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In his darkest days, in 1994, sleepless nights were the norm for media entrepreneur Chris Whittle. He had overextended his company, Whittle Communications LP, into too many divisions. For more than three years, he had been selling off his print-and-video empire to cut his losses. At the same time, he was trying to launch the first Edison Project schools: high-quality, privately run institutions funded by public tax dollars.

But his financial woes were widely known, and the conventional wisdom was that public schools were just that: public. They were run by individual school districts and certainly were not appropriate ground for entrepreneurs looking for profitable enterprises. "The Jeffersonian dream was that every child would be provided with an education," Whittle says. "It wasn't that a school district would have to do it."

He had to prove his idea was possible. He would have to put up much of his own money to persuade investors to join him in his commitment to the project. "I was betting the farm-my homes, investments, everything. It was one of the few times in my business career that I really did feel the wind at my back. I've never felt like Edison wouldn't make it."

His vision: Boards of school districts would turn over tax money designated for each student's education to Edison, which would be contracted to educate those students. The kicker: Students at Edison schools would get a level of high-quality, more global and technology-oriented instruction enjoyed nearly exclusively by students attending elite private schools. The profit for Edison would come through cost efficiencies that would result in using less tax money.

In 1989, with 19 years under his belt in the media industry, Whittle had been asking himself what to do with the second half of his entrepreneurial life. He was invited to make a speech by a business round-table. The subject: What he would do to change education in the United States.

He came up with two ideas. "One, I thought that as a country we needed to invest more in the design of our education programs," he says. "Second, I thought, Why not have...

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