"How impossible it is for me to make regular entries in the diary. I suddenly remember how I used to puzzle over the word at school. Always wondering why diary was so like Dairy and what the connection was. Never found out. Like that label on the bottle of Daddies Sauce - it never stopped. The man on the label was holding a bottle of Daddies Sauce and on the bottle was a label with a man holding a bottle of Daddies Sauce ... ad infinitum ad nauseam for me at any rate."
Kenneth Wilson, diary, 01.06.53
Berton is probably unknown in the United States, but in Canada his image as a genial, bowtied, grandfatherly figure - at least for my generation - is both generally assumed and completely inaccurate.
This book, a thick history of Canada during the Great Depression, is no polite, nostalgic look back at "hard times" and how they (somehow) made us better. It isn't suffused with the sadness and resignation of, say Barry Broadfoot's Ten Lost Years, the famous oral history of the decade from a Canadian perspective. Berton's book is a clenched fist of a book, a seething 600+ pages of barely contained rage. It reads as if every event described had happened yesterday, and that, by God, some bastard is going to pay for it.
For awhile, Berton seems unsure about who he hates more, Canada's Hooveresque Prime Minister of the first years of the Depression, R. B. Bennett, or his predecessor and successor, the horribly unique Mackenzie King. In the end, King wins out, and Berton can barely contain his contempt for this asexual, table-rapping, timid yet canny politician. By the end, I had an urge to take the subway to King's grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and salute the son of a bitch with a few considered gobs on the slab that sits over his earthly remains. Highly, highly recommended.
Recent articles in Fortune and Business Week have detailed the fiscal overreach that has seen Edison stock collapse from a high of $37 to less than two dollars. Stock analysts - usually the pollyannas of the financial industry - are unforgiving: "Edison will likely either become a private company or face bankruptcy."
Whittle plan was ambitious: Edison would take over schools and "cut the fat" that everyone assumed was there, instituting longer days and school years, training teachers intensively, dividing classes into "clusters" and "houses" that kept students and teachers together for years, and concentrating on reading as well as "Foreign languages, art and dance". If he succeeded, Whittle would be at the helm of a nationwide chain of progressive private schools run for public school boards at less than the cost of much-reviled public schools.
Things started going bad when suburban middle-class parents decided they liked their schools just fine, thank you, and forced Whittle to go for the inner-city market he initially had no intention of courting. He had fans in high places - Republican governors like Lamar Alexander, Tom Ridge and George W. Bush among them - and Whittle won contracts, 150 in 22 states, with 80,000 students.
By the end of this school year, though, Whittle will probably be running quite a few less, as Edison schools in Texas and Pennsylvania are poised to pull out of their contracts after results that have ranged from disappointing to disastrous.
In Texas, test results were less than promised, but in Philadelphia, Edison has produced what would be a farce if the fate of so many children weren't at stake.
Attempting to cut costs, Edison managers eliminated nonteaching assistants and hall monitors. "Disaster ensued," according to Fortune. "Fights and fires broke out, and police had to be called into one school to restore order until staffers were rehired." It gets worse. As Edison stock tumbled, and Whittle was forced to put his Hamptons estate up as security on an $18.2 million loan, books, computers, lab and art supplies were repo'ed from Philadelphia's Barratt Middle school just before the school year began. The free computer progam in Edison schools was abandoned.
There's more. In October, Whittle paid for a $300,000 retreat for Edison principles and staff in Colorado Springs, where he mooted a plan to save money by cutting adult staff and having students work an hour a day in school offices and on technology support systems. 600 students, by his accounting, could do the work of 75 adults. "I think it's an important concept for education and economics," Whittle said.
While child labour is common in schools across China, there's some reluctance to let American schools return to a practice outlawed a century ago. Confident of his political connections, though, Whittle promised he could have the plan in place by 2004.
Edison has never had a profitable quarter, but that has never hindered Whittle's optimism. "If we wanted to to stop growth right now and say we're never going to open another school, we'd be profitable today." With a history of overstating revenues that sunk Whittle Communications, Whittle assured everyone that he'd learned from his mistakes.
Last May, however, the SEC "declared that Edison was confusingly inflating revenues by including salaries paid directly by Edison-managed public schools to teachers." Edison disputed the SEC's allegation with the lame "but everybody does it" excuse, but was forced to restate revenues, lowering them by $77.6 million over four years.
Ramon Cortines, a former Edison board member, put it politely: "I believe integrity is extremely important. I began to find that lacking." Put another way, by Lisa Snell in Reason:
"One might be able to equate Edison schools with market failure if Edison and its government contracts even remotely resembled an education "market". But there is no competition. The company's students do not 'choose' Edison schools. Exactly like the public schools they replace, Edison's contract schools have a captive customer base supported by government funding. While some parents have been very pleased with Edison's results and have fought to retain the schools, the fact is that Edison's schools are a government-sanctioned monopoly in each community they serve."
"Edison," Snell writes, "has been serving the wrong customer." Whittle, however, is still hopeful, promising that the Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which requires failing school districts to change management, will increase Edison's market share.
I have been reading about Chris Whittle all my adult life, in a series of glowing profiles that painted every project he began as a sort of second coming, the re-invention of the wheel, so I don't expect he'll disappear anytime soon. It would be sad but ultimately actionable if this overcapitalized carny were only gulling the sort of witless investors who flock to, say, the technology sector, or telephone soliticing. That he's insinuated himself into something as essential as education and seems free from any kind of oversight or threat of prosecution outside a few class action lawsuits is more than tragic. Would someone - even the market, bless its black heart - please stop this fucking vulture?
H. Christopher Whittle - asshole of the month.
©2003 Rick McGinnis - all rights reserved
I'm late, I know, terrible late with this entry. The fact is that, for the last two months and more, I've been labouring over an entry about war, the war, the war that we're in, or starting, or whatever. I'll still try to finish it and post it up here, but in the meantime, I had a few thoughts about Joe Strummer and punk rock that needed to get out.
For all of my regular diary readers - I'm terribly sorry for taking so long. There's been enough to read on the rest of the site, I'm sure, but the diary thing has been a bit moribund. That will change. There have been changes, big ones, in my life lately, and I'll try to talk about them in more detail here.
PLACES TO GO:
MY CRAZY FRIEND BILL HAS WRITTEN ANOTHER BOOK! Like his previous book, it's about the fact that we in the west continue to live in the social, political, and economic fallout from the Renaissance. Reforming the Prophet, however, places the idea in the context of the unreformed world of Islam, which has yet to - or, rather, is about to have - it's own, violent, terrible age of enlightenment. Bill's conclusion is simple enough: Poor Islam, poor us.
"The lesson of the Western reformation is that reformations are so messy, bloody and socially splitting that things must go terribly wrong before anyone in their right mind would choose to be part of a reformation... Reformations have a nasty habit of leaving their religious issues behind to fester and become appropriated as a metaphor for economic, educational and social displacement issues."