The president of Yale University is stepping down to head the Edison Project, a bold and risky attempt to create a national private school system that could serve as a laboratory for educational reform.
Benno C. Schmidt Jr.'s decision to become president and chief executive officer of the project adds prestige and credibility to the plan, which envisions a chain of 1,000 profit-making schools with two million students by 2010.
"If this venture I'm embarking on now will be a failure, it will be a noble failure and we will learn a lot from it that will be of use," Mr. Schmidt, 50, told reporters in New Haven, Conn., yesterday.
The project was conceived by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, 43, whose Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tenn., is better known for putting the controversial "Channel One" news-with-commercials program into classrooms in 10,000 public schools.
Mr. Whittle's idea for the Edison Project, announced a year ago, is to start from scratch to design a completely new school system that will both enrich corporate backers and provide a model that can be copied by public schools around the nation.
The National Education Association, which represents more than two million education employees, opposes attempts by private corporations to establish schools "for profit motives," said NEA spokesman Bill Martin.
Mr. Schmidt, who was Yale president for six years, will direct the three-year planning stage of the venture; the Edison Project's goal is to raise $2.3 billion to finance 200 schools serving 150,000 students by 1996.
The Edison Project schools, which may be open eight hours a day and nearly year-round, eventually would offer education from preschool through high school.
The venture comes as the Bush administration pushes for a nationwide voucher system that would let students use public dollars to attend private schools.
Mr. Whittle himself has said he has no idea what the new system will look like; his plan, he has said, is to assemble the best minds in America from education and business and science and develop a blueprint.
Mr. Whittle began in February by naming seven people including a Chicago elementary school teacher, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former editor of Esquire magazine to a core group that will draft this blueprint.
Mr. Schmidt's appointment "adds to the innate credibility of the venture" and to the team's "conceptual horsepower," said team member Chester E. Finn Jr., a Vanderbilt University professor and top aide to former Education Secretary William J. Bennett.
The partners in the Edison Project, who are providing an initial $60 million in funding, are Whittle Communications, Time Warner Inc., Philips Electronics N.V. and Associated Newspapers of Britain.