Friday, June 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
More than a decade of lackluster student performance couldn't dissuade the Clark County School District from renewing a $7.6 million contract with EdisonLearning Inc. on Thursday.
Founded in 1992, Edison is a pricey for-profit education management company that currently operates seven schools in Las Vegas. The New York-based company's contract with six of those schools was set to expire June 30.
Swayed by passionate supporters and a petition with 2,000 parent signatures, the School Board approved a two-year contract in a 5-to-1 vote.
School Board member Carolyn Edwards — the sole dissenting voice — said she struggled to understand why the district would continue its costly and controversial partnership with Edison despite its tainted history and record in Las Vegas.
"Frankly, it's alarming," Edwards said of Edison's record. "This is $3.8 million a year of taxpayer money that hasn't shown a significant return on investment."
Edison came to town in 2001 promising to boost achievement among minority students from low-income families. Eleven years and three contract renewals later, the district has forked over more than $30 million with little student achievement.
The past decade also saw a a fiscal error that cost Clark County taxpayers $1.6 million, late philanthropy payments and lagging test scores that forced out the Edison program at West Prep Middle School.
Nationally, Edison has been criticized for privatizing the classroom and implementing a cookie-cutter approach to education. In some school districts, Edison's failure to deliver on its promise of higher student achievement has invited lawsuits.
"Eleven years is long time to support something that's barely shown improvement," Edwards said. "I believe in school choice and I don't have a problem with the private sector, but I haven't heard enough tonight to show me why we should continue this partnership."
Even as it faced multimillion-dollar budget cuts, the School District has forked over millions of dollars of state-allocated, per-pupil funding to stamp the Edison brand on Cahlan, Crestwood, Elizondo, Lincoln, Lynch, Park and Ronnow elementary schools. About 5,200 students are enrolled at Edison schools.
Under the new contract next year, the School District will spend between $9,203 and $10,763 per student at each of these Edison schools.
Although that's higher than the district's average per-pupil cost of $8,355, Edison students are cheaper to educate than those attending the district's magnet and Prime Six schools, historically black schools located in West Las Vegas.
In exchange for this funding, Edison-operated schools were provided professional training, resources and curricula for teachers. Teachers are still considered School District employees, however, and Edison schools still have to meet state and national standards.
The program is seemingly popular with Edison teachers and parents, according to several surveys conducted by the School District and Edison last year. More than a hundred people — mainly teachers — packed the School Board meeting wearing blue T-shirts that read "CCSD + EdisonLearning = A winning partnership."
Teachers said they liked Edison's collaborative teaching method, which set aside 40 minutes every day to prepare lesson plans and review student data with colleagues. They also found Edison's professional training to be helpful with instruction, and the four parent-teacher conferences a year effective in getting parents engaged with their children.
"I think the Edison model and design is a good one that we can learn from," Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said. "I think it's starting to pay off."
Jones is a former operational vice president for Edison Schools, where he supervised 11 schools in Kansas, Missouri, and Maryland, according to his School District bio.
Parents said they felt the schools communicated well with families and were adamant Edison's curricula and instruction were effective. Almost all of the survey respondents said they wanted to stay at an Edison-run school and 90 percent were content with their child's academic success.
When these surveys were released in March, several School Board members said they were skeptical of another contract renewal with Edison, pointing to mixed test results over the past decade.
Yet, after several school visits, most School Board members had changed their minds about the Edison schools.
"In the last couple of years, I've seen Edison change," School Board President Linda Young said, adding that she wasn't sold on the program at first. "I'm asking my fellow trustees to support this."
Jones said the new contract is stronger than previous ones, with more stringent benchmarks and guidelines.
Edison spokesman and chief operating officer Thom Jackson said he is confident Edison would be able to have 100 percent of its students achieve grade level proficiency in math and reading by the end of the contract in 2014.
"We're excited about the board's decision to continue this partnership," Jackson said. "We won't give up on making a difference with these students."
Despite the supporting votes, approving School Board members said they wanted to see better results, advocating for a mid-year check-in.
"The return on investment must be better than in the past," School Board member Erin Cranor warned.
The question looms, however, Edwards said: How long does Edison plan to be in the School District?
Most Edison programs can turn around a low-performing school in three years, said Edison's Jackson.
Edison has already been in the district for three times that long.