Magazine article The Nation

Big Business Goes to School

Magazine article The Nation

Big Business Goes to School

Article excerpt

Channel One, the controversial TV news program for schools, will be televised for the first time in Russia this spring. In the United States, the program is watched every school day in more than 9,000 schools by 6.6 million teenagers--almost a third of all teen students. In fact, more adolescents watch the twelve-minute program than watch the three top network shows combined. In Russia, Channel One will be televised on a test basis in schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But the expansion of Channel One into Russia and its continuing success in America are less significant than another Whittle Communications project, perhaps the most ambitious educational initiative ever undertaken by an American company. In the next few years, Whittle hopes to reshape education by opening a nationwide chain of 200 private schools for profit.

Chris Whittle, chairman and founder of Whittle Communications, represents the new intersection between business and education. Until recently, corporate America, for the most part, has avoided direct involvement in education. But it has now turned to the classroom. The Bush Administration is the point of entry and Chris Whittle is the point man.

Herbert Christopher Whittle is 44 years old. He grew up in Etowah, Tennessee, and earned a B.S. degree in American studies from the University of Tennessee, where he was president of the student body. He began his business career publishing a guide for college freshmen. By 1979 his publishing company was doing well enough to buy and revitalize Esquire, which he later turned over to a former partner. Whittle likes to portray himself as a successful businessman and says he hasn't decided if he is a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, his political and financial connections, particularly his many interlocking ties with Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, suggest an agenda far beyond party affiliation.

Whittle Communications is a media company whose properties include specialized magazines, books that contain advertising, a television/magazine service for physicians' off ices, wall posters and televised programming. The centerpiece is Channel One.

The Whittle formula is ingenious. His company lends the schools TVs, VCRs and satellite dishes to receive the programming and then wires the system. Besides Channel One, the Whittle Educational Network includes an hour or two a day of noncommercial, educational programming, which is supplied by a regional public TV station, and an occasional professional development program for teachers. In exchange, schools agree to show Channel One to most students on 92 percent of the days in which school is in session.

When Channel One began, the national P.T.A. and a number of other educational organizations opposed it vociferously because of the two minutes of ads on every Channel One program. Critics such as Bill Honig, California state superintendent of public instruction, accused Whittle of "converting the educational purpose of a school to a commercial one."

Buoyed by its $102 million in gross annual revenues from Channel One, Whittle Communications is looking for ways to expand. About nine months ago, Whittle unveiled a plan to invent," build and open 200 private schools by 1996. His plan resembles the Education Department's original proposal to create some 535 experimental schools by the same year. Referring to his "new American schools." Whittle even echoes some of the rhetoric used by the Bush Administration in its "America 2000" education goals, announced about the same time. Whittle's schools would serve all children from "age 0 to 18," he told Education Week. Most likely there would be no admission requirements. If demand exceeded available space, applicants would be selected at random. Tuition for each school would probably be just below the perpupil cost of public education in its community. Whittle would try to hold the cost of operating his schools to less than that of public schools. …

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