Despite little progress, EdisonLearning, the company the state hired for the flawed takeover, received an extended contract that could push its earnings over $31 million on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal grants.
A CRUSADER SPECIAL REPORT
By Erick Johnson
The time had come for the state to act. The year was 2011. For six consecutive years, Gary’s Roosevelt College and Career Academy was on academic probation. The school had received “F” grades on Indiana’s Accountability Test. Then Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett came to Gary. Citing a 1999 state law, he announced a takeover of Roosevelt. The Indiana State Board of Education gave Bennett the okay to grab control of the institutions.
It was the first stop for Bennett, who visited three additional schools whose curriculum would be seized by the state.
But with its storied past and stellar roster of distinguished alumni, the announcement of a state takeover of Roosevelt was bittersweet. He announced that the school would be operated by a private company that operated schools on the East Coast.
What the public did not know was that company, EdisonLearning, donated $2,000 to Bennett’s superintendent’s race. So began EdisonLearning’s academic takeover of Roosevelt.
Nearly a decade later, little has been achieved at Roosevelt, but EdisonLearning is a whole lot richer.
As the Roosevelt students struggled academically in a crumbling, deteriorating building, the state wasted $22 million on EdisonLearning’s turnaround effort that never happened. State contracts obtained by the Gary Crusader show that the Indiana State Board of Education lined EdisonLearning’s pockets with millions of dollars even as state data showed that most of Roosevelt’s test scores and graduation rates were no better than before the takeover.
Despite little to no progress at the end of EdisonLearning’s lucrative, five-year contract, the state extended the agreement that gave EdisonLearning the opportunity to push its earnings beyond $31 million.
It’s a story of wasteful spending that has left Roosevelt’s students and its building with an uncertain future. What started as the state’s grand plans to do what the school district failed to do, has turned into an embarrassing effort that made a crisis at Gary’ most storied school even worse.
With little accountability, it’s a story of how the state made a company with a shady history richer while making a cherished institution in Gary and the school district that ran it poorer. Now, the same public officials who are being blamed for hastening Roosevelt’s demise are holding several community meetings in Indianapolis before making a final decision next year about the school’s future.
Before state officials make that decision, perhaps they should look at their role in Roosevelt’s demise. State Representative Vernon Smith became the first Black prominent official who on November 6 joined a chorus of critics placing the blame on the state, accusing officials of allowing Roosevelt to rot while in the hands of a for-profit company that has a shady history of operating in public school districts.
Instead of funneling public money to the struggling Gary Community School Corp., the state in 2011 began paying EdisonLearning huge cash installments as part of a five-year contract. It was a huge loss for the school district that was already struggling with declining state funds because of its overall dwindling student enrollment.
According to the contract, in 2012, the state paid EdisonLearning $850,000. In 2013, the state initially agreed to pay EdisonLearning $4,149,985.06 before that figure was changed to $6,866,328.52, records show.
From 2013 to 2016, EdisonLearning’s payments each year averaged nearly $4.8 million. For all five years EdisonLearning received a total of $22,129,108.10.
During those same years, EdisonLearning received a total of six public grants totaling $228,135, state records show. Four of those grants were federal grants that doubled after the state’s Indiana Safe Schools account matched them. Those four grants were given to EdisonLearning for its commitment to maintaining a drug-free workplace among its employees.
The largest of these funds was a grant for $69,835 in 2012 from the Indiana Department of Education. That was when Tony Bennett, who authorized the takeover amid concerns, served as Superintendent of Public Instruction.
During those years under EdisonLearning’s leadership, Roosevelt students consistently scored below the state average in various areas, including enrollment, attendance, graduation rates and SAT and ISTEP test scores.
In all areas, Roosevelt still scored well below the state average under EdisonLearning. It still scored F grades on the state report card until 2016 when it earned a D.
In fact, in some categories, Roosevelt performed higher before the state takeover. Between 2012 and 2016, Roosevelt’s graduation rate averaged 45 percent under EdisonLearning. Before the takeover, between 2007 and 2011, Roosevelt’s graduation rate averaged 55 percent, according to state data. In 2010, Roosevelt’s 62.5 percent graduation rate was higher than any year it operated under EdisonLearning.
While Roosevelt’s SAT scores remain well below the state average, they have slightly improved under EdisonLearning, but not much. In reading, the Roosevelt students scored an average of 399 on the college entrance exam compared to 379 before the takeover. In the writing portion of the SAT, students under EdisonLearning scored an average of 371 compared to 368. And in math, Roosevelt students averaged a 371 score under EdisonLearning compared to 355 before the takeover.
But for $22 million, Roosevelt alumni agree that the state should have gotten much, much more for its money and should have been tougher on EdisonLearning after years of falling short on its goals.
There is also the argument that before the takeover, Roosevelt did not have the same resources as EdisonLearning or the $22 million in funds that the state generously gave to boost academic achievement at the school.
For years, Roosevelt was among several schools that struggled under a cash-strapped, broke school district that time and again sought loans from the state just to make payroll. Even as the dwindling enrollment and declining state funding imperiled Roosevelt and the school district, the state did little to nothing to invest in resources or professional staff as the crisis grew worse and worse.
In its own 424-page evaluation and implementation plan that EdisonLearning submitted to the state, the company listed numerous disturbing assessments after it was awarded the lucrative contract. They found that Roosevelt:
- Had three instructors and close to 180 students in the JROTC program.
- Offered limited opportunities for students to earn a Core 40 Technical Honors Diploma.
- Did not utilize a system where teachers and administrators had access to student data.
- Had an average of three computers in classrooms of 25-30 students.
- Did not have interactive white boards in classrooms or labs.
- Teachers and staff were unable to use email to communicate with each other. Students did not have access to email through the school’s system.
- Many Roosevelt classes were using two different math and Language Arts programs with no alignment to the next grade level. Many textbooks were in disrepair and there was a shortage of textbooks for social studies classes.
The report also said students “are disconnected from their school and do not have a sense of real ownership,” and said further students “are not directly taught social and emotional skills.” The report noted students showed “little pride in learning spaces” and that “many students lack team-building skills.”
Then there was the problem with Roosevelt’s crumbling building, which state officials had known was a problem as far back as 2012, when EdisonLearning filed a lawsuit against the school district accusing it of stealing students’ records and trying to enroll Roosevelt students in other Gary schools.
In that lawsuit, EdisonLearning said that Roosevelt’s building had serious maintenance problems. The roof was leaking and mold was discovered in one of the buildings. The elevator was broken, forcing janitors to carry disabled students up the stairs. Asbestos in the floor tiles was found and lead in aging paint posed safety issues.
At the time, the school district, not the state was responsible for repairing Roosevelt’s building. That changed when the state took over the entire district academically and financially in 2017.
The lawsuit also called for installing a complete fire sprinkler and detection system that would be monitored by the fire department.
With all its resources and state-support, EdisonLearning took on the monumental task of turning Roosevelt around after the state blamed the district for the school’s problems. After five years under EdisonLearning, the school still failed on state tests and lagged behind other high schools in Indiana.
Despite the disappointing results and $22 million in wasted taxpayer’s dollars, the state on June 30, 2017, extended EdisonLearning’s contract to June 2, 2018. The contract extension stipulated that EdisonLearning’s total earning cannot exceed $31,012,803.90.
Even with that limit, EdisonLearning will enjoy a lucrative bonanza despite producing little results.
With the extended contract, Roosevelt was designated as an Innovation Network and the pressure was off EdisonLearning to improve the academic achievement of Roosevelt. The school would be judged based on its progress in growth towards attendance and enrollment.
Those rules allowed EdisonLearning to compare its progress to the history of an underfunded, underesourced Roosevelt rather than to the academic standards originally set by the state. Meanwhile, the payments kept coming in.
Roosevelt’s graduation rate was 63 percent in 2017, the highest at Roosevelt under EdisonLearning since 2010, but it was 10 percent below the school’s Innovation Network Agreement with the Gary Community School Corporation.
In 2018, Roosevelt under the relaxed rules, received an “A” grade on the state’s report card. Two days later, EdisonLearning laid off 25 teachers and support staff at Roosevelt in a move that diminished morale at the school and increased distrust among Roosevelt’s alumni and teachers. The employees were given little warning and some were longtime teachers who helped Roosevelt achieve its “A” grade.
The new agreement baffled then Emergency Manager Peggy Hinkley, who in news reports expressed disbelief as to how EdisonLearning could get an extension given its poor history of turning around Roosevelt to meet state standards.
The joint agreement between EdisonLearning to oversee academic performance goals at Roosevelt was approved by the Gary School Board by a vote of 5-2.
While some leaders including Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson hailed the agreement as a sign that the state trusted both sides, there was criticism that the board was given just several days to review the 57-page document and the financial arrangement of EdisonLearning’s new contract.
Then-GCSC Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said she was worried that if the board did not vote on the agreement, “the state will make a decision for us.”
The Crusader requested a copy of this contract through Michael Tolbert, the attorney for the state-controlled Gary school district. The Crusader waited nearly a month before Toliver told the Crusader to obtain the document through the state or EdisonLearning.
One week after the Crusader asked Gary schools spokesperson Chelsea Whittington about a separate copy of the contract the newspaper obtained, the public portal to obtain state documents had changed to allow access only to public employees.
Over the years, the state held discussions with EdisonLearning to reestablish benchmarks, but so much has changed that many, including some officials, are confused as to what expectations should be placed on Edison Learning.
Meanwhile the Roosevelt alumni and leaders are realizing that the state is as much to blame as EdisonLearning for bringing Roosevelt to the brink of extinction.
“You are the ones who authorized them to take over the school,” State Representative Vernon Smith said at the November 6 community meeting in Indianapolis. “That was the most foolish and most irresponsible contract.”
But the other concerns are about EdisonLearning’s political connections and shady history of managing school districts in other cities in America, including Chicago.
The person who gave EdisonLearning the chance to rob Roosevelt was Tony Bennett, the state’s superintendent of instruction, who made the proposal for EdisonLearning to take over Roosevelt in 2012.
He also has ties to MGT Consulting Group, which works with Emergency Manager Peter Morikis in overseeing the district’s academic and financial operations.
Before EdisonLearning was granted a lucrative contract to manage Roosevelt for five years, Bennett had ties to that firm, too. Bennett’s ally, former Florida governor and charter school advocate Jeb Bush in 2003 bailed out EdisonLearning (then called Edison Schools) by leading an effort to purchase the publicly-traded firm for $182 million. Before the purchase, the firm’s stock had crashed from $37 to 14 cents.
In 2008, EdisonLearning donated $2,000 to Bennett for his campaign for Indiana State Superintendent, a race that he narrowly won. In 2012, Bennett lost to current Superintendent Glenda Ritz.
That December, Bennett resigned as Florida Education Commissioner after a scandal where Bennett was accused of changing the A-F rating system in the fall of 2012 so that Christel House Academy, a charter school run by a Republican donor in Indianapolis, could receive an “A” rating. Emails showed his staff working to get Christel House the “A” grade. Bennett at the time defended the grade saying the prior rating system disadvantaged Christel House because the school taught students from kindergarten to 10th grade.
In 2013, NBA legend Magic Johnson severed ties with EdisonLearning’s Bridgescapes program and removed his name from the school’s signs. The next year, EdisonLearning was purchased in 2014 by current owner Thom Jackson.
In 2015, Strategos, a firm in which Bennett serves as a partner, acquired Florida-based MGT Consulting Group, which has a lucrative three-year contract to help Gary’s Emergency Manager oversee the Gary schools as part of the state’s takeover. That contract with MGT, where Bennett reportedly serves on the Board of the Directors, allows MGT to make up to $3.9 million a year if performance targets are met. Bennett’s ties to MGT were not mentioned by the firm or Indiana officials when MGT was chosen out of six contenders seeking to turn Gary’s entire school district around.
Courtney Schaasfsma, executive director of the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, said in one news report that she was aware of Bennett’s ties when MGT Consulting was chosen for job.
According to the Journal Gazette on December 18, State Representative Vernon Smith and State Senator Eddie Melton (now a candidate for governor) called on the state to dissolve MGT’s contract, accusing Bennett of playing a role in creating additional financial problems for the district.
This past September, the Chicago Public Schools shut down the last of EdisonLearning’s charter schools after a scathing review by district officials, according to several reports. District officials concluded that students were not receiving enough in-person instruction and that its online curriculum wasn’t challenging and offered “low-level” tasks. One district official reportedly balked at EdisonLearning charging its schools to use its own software and called the setup a “money factory.”
“Displacing children is not in their best interest,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson told the Chicago Board of Education in July. “In this case, the district has acted on a provider who failed to provide quality education for our children.”
There were other problems with EdisonLearning, once the nation’s largest for-profit manager that has operated thousands of schools in poor school districts, including districts in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Today, EdisonLearning is less than half the size that it once was. The company’s problems have been widely reported in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the ProPublica, the Pullitzer-prize winning online investigative news organization.
In 2017, one of EdisonLearning’s schools, Capital High in Columbus, Ohio, was paid $1.8 million for classrooms that were mostly empty, according to a story in USA Today by ProPublica. According to the investigation, just three of more than 170 students on Capital’s rolls attended class the required five hours that day. Nearly a third of the students failed to attend class the entire week, according to the investigation.
In 2002, EdisonLearning signed a five-year contract to operate 20 schools with the Philadelphia School District. EdisonLearning wanted to be paid $1,500 per pupil but the district paid the company $881, according to the Wall Street Journal. The district held up $5 million in contract payments until EdisonLearning promised that the district can keep Edison-owned textbooks and school materials if Edison ceases operating.
The relationship began to sour in 2006 when the guardian of a student at one of EdisonLearning’s schools filed a lawsuit after the student was sexually assaulted by another student in the restroom. The lawsuit sparked a legal battle between EdisonLearning and the Philadelphia school district. In 2014, EdisonLearning filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District, claiming breach of contract. The suit asked a federal judge to force the school district to reimburse EdisonLearning’s legal fees and settlement costs from the lawsuit.
With EdisonLearning’s spotty history in school districts, why would state officials choose such a company to turn around Roosevelt, a school that has struggled for decades? At a meeting at the Gary Library on October 12, several parents discussed plans to demand the state to return control back to the district after the state’s failures to address problems.
On Monday, October 28, more than a week before the State Board of Education was scheduled to hold an important meeting in Indianapolis November 6, EdisonLearning met with some Roosevelt alumni during a meeting that was viewed by some as a desperate attempt by the company to save its credibility and its contract.
Sources told the Crusader that EdisonLearning presented some alternative locations to relocate Roosevelt students from the Gary Area Career Center.
“They had been silent all year about Roosevelt. Now all of a sudden, they are doing something. All of a sudden there’s a meeting,” said Roosevelt alumni Janice Ford. “Why now?”