The Master Salesman of For-Profit Education

Can controversial entrepreneur Chris Whittle create a new model for private schools?
Students arrive for the grand opening of the Whittle School and Studios in Northwest Washington. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

It’s 7:35 on a September morning, and a DJ is pumping dance music into the thick, humid air. Parents and children, some teenagers and others as young as 4 or 5, emerge from cars that are whisked away by valets. Like celebrities on a red carpet, the families walk through a throng of applauding staff and teachers and pass under an arch of balloons at the door to Washington’s newest private school.

Greeting families at the curb is an unassuming man with longish gray hair, sipping Coke from a paper coffee cup. The parents who recognize him steer their shy youngsters his way. “Call me Chris,” he insists, as he shakes hands with students and parents, welcoming everyone. A woman introduces herself and her daughter. “Thank you for all you are doing here,” she says. “It’s going to be a great year.”

“It’s going to be a very interesting year,” the man replies, then pauses. “As they all have been.”

It’s opening day at the Whittle School and Studios, a brand-new pre-K-through-12 private school in Northwest Washington founded by Chris Whittle, the Coca-Cola-sipping man at the curb. Four years in the making, the school and its 185 enrollees represent the first phase of a global institution that Whittle plans to expand over the next decade into more than 30 campuses worldwide, serving more than 2,000 students each, with 150 to 180 in each grade. Two days before the scene in Washington, he was in Shenzhen, China, at the opening of the sister inaugural campus there. Rain came down in sheets like a monsoon, “but in China,” Whittle says, “it’s auspicious for it to rain.”

The Whittle School can use the auspicious sign. The school is the latest iteration of its founder’s long-standing vision of a new paradigm for education: international, individualized, experiential — and unabashedly for-profit. At 72, Whittle has a lifetime of these types of projects behind him, as well as a lifetime of not quite fulfilling the grand expectations that launched them. Like the Whittle School, his previous ventures — the Edison Schools, a for-profit charter school company; and Avenues: The World School in New York, a private institution — were begun with great fanfare and enthusiasm. But they never achieved their loudly trumpeted ambitions.

Now Whittle wants to reinvent private education from the ground up — to throw out old assumptions and build a private school that’s bigger, better and more in tune with contemporary life than any in the world. Students, Whittle believes, need a global education, so he has created a school where students will collaborate on projects with peers in other countries. Teachers will be able to transfer from continent to continent, bringing their lessons and experiences to the classroom. Students will be encouraged to spend about two years boarding at Whittle Schools overseas, immersing themselves in new cultures. “If all our students are not highly proficient in at least a second and hopefully a third language, that is really what we’d call a failure,” he told me. The company has offices and staff not just in the United States and China, but in India, the Middle East and the United Kingdom as well.

Perhaps Whittle’s biggest innovation is his business model. Like his previous educational ventures, and unlike the vast majority of American independent schools, the Whittle School will be run for a profit. Whittle insists it won’t affect the education. It’s simply, he says, the only way to raise the huge sums of capital needed to build and staff so many schools so quickly. So far, he has raised more than $900 million in direct investments and development costs borne by the real estate firms that will build and own his campuses. Yet that’s just a fraction of what this new network is projected to cost. Whittle has already been spending for years, recruiting top administrators and staff from the best private schools in the United States, China and the United Kingdom. Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano’s firm is designing every building (sophisticated — and expensive — architecture is another Whittle obsession).

It’s the Whittle way: Think big, take risks, go for the best. And yes, make money. To Whittle enthusiasts, it’s the mark of a true visionary, knocking down a stale and underperforming educational system to build up one redesigned for the 21st century. To critics, the pattern is all too familiar — the hyped launch with promises of vast accomplishments and dramatic change that are likely to slowly fizzle over time. It’s too soon to tell whether Whittle can finally break through to the lasting success he has so long pursued, but one thing is clear: The Whittle School is probably his last, best chance.

Whittle School founder Chris Whittle. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

I first met Whittle in the spring, when he walked me through the 660,000-square-foot former Intelsat building on upper Connecticut Avenue NW that’s the site of his new campus. Construction had been halted because of a permitting issue (the work is still unfinished; students are using temporary classrooms), so it was eerily quiet as he excitedly pointed out the gutted spaces that would eventually hold theaters (five of them), a basketball court and exercise machines. “We think this will be one of the great day-school campuses,” he said, sounding the ever-confident note that is his hallmark.

On the top floor, he paused to look down at three octagonal domed courtyards and pointed to large circular holes in the floors. That, he told me, is where the trees will go. “You’re basically going to see through three forests,” he said. He originally wanted to remove the glass domes but decided that cold winters and rainy days would limit the usefulness of the space. It was a rare compromise for Whittle, who doesn’t let much get in the way of his vision.

For him, grand designs — pushing to realize challenging ideas with scale and impact — are more important than achieving complete success. The struggle is a point of honor. “Show me someone who’s tried difficult and important things for 50 years who has a completely perfect record,” he says. “If you have no ups and downs, you’re probably not trying stuff that’s very hard. It’s easy for people to pick on, but it’s a lot harder to do the things that I’ve tried to do.” His voice retains a soft Tennessee twang even though he has lived in New York for decades. And though he has challenged educational orthodoxy since the 1990s, he resembles nothing so much as a private school headmaster in his outfit of khakis, striped shirt, bow tie, button-down sweater vest and blue blazer.

Whittle’s first exposure to what would become his life’s pursuit came in 1968. That year, as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee, he attended a National Student Association conference promoting the idea of giving students more of a voice in their education. It completely changed his thinking about how education could work. “The whole idea that a school could be improved was a new notion to me, because you kind of accept schools for what they are,” he says. And giving students the power to make their own decisions about their schooling — “that very definitely stuck, and has been a central theme.” When he ran for student body president later that year (and won), his slogan was “For a Better Education.”

But after college, he struck out in other directions. He enrolled in law school at Columbia University but left after a semester. He labored in the oil fields of Louisiana, worked on a gubernatorial campaign in Connecticut, then spent a year traveling the globe. Returning to Knoxville, Tenn., he rejoined a publication for students that he and some college friends had started while still in school. The business quickly expanded, ultimately becoming Whittle Communications — a media empire putting out specialty magazines, book series and TV shows, often with single advertisers, and distributed to schools, universities, and doctor’s and dentist’s offices. Though the corporation was based in Knoxville, Whittle, from the early 1970s, lived part time in New York to be near advertisers and company offices. He bought an apartment in the famed Dakota building and in 1979 surprised the New York media world by purchasing and revitalizing Esquire magazine.

In 1986 he split with his co-founder, who kept Esquire while Whittle got the other media properties. Two years later, Time Inc. bought half of Whittle Communications for $185 million — netting Whittle $40 million. The company then spent $56 million on a sprawling and ornate Tennessee headquarters. It was necessary, says Whittle, because there were nearly 1,000 employees not only in Knoxville but also in satellite offices in New York and Los Angeles. Centralizing everything on one corporate campus made sense.

An unfinished section of the Whittle School campus on the first day of school. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

The spending spree — and the splashy architecture — would become a pattern. “He likes to live large,” says Trace Urdan, managing director at financial advisory firm Tyton Partners, who has covered for-profit education — and some of Whittle’s ventures — since the 1990s. “There are instances of money sloshing around between his private money and the company money.” (For example: In 2003, Whittle owed his education company $10.4 million for a loan he had received, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Whittle says the loan was properly disclosed in a public filing and is “hardly sloshing.” He says the board urged him to purchase more shares of the company as a sign of confidence prior to the company’s public offering. To facilitate that, the company loaned him $10 million, which he reinvested in the company.) Time and again, his companies have had to push back, says Jonathan A. Knee, a Columbia Business School professor and a senior adviser at the investment banking firm Evercore who wrote about Whittle in his 2016 book “Class Clowns: How the Smartest Investors Lost Billions in Education.” “In every case, eventually, Whittle has had his ability to spend the company’s money radically curtailed.” Whittle points out that the budgets of any well-governed company are negotiated and approved by boards and finance committees. As chief executive of his companies, he regularly submitted annual budgets and major project investments that resulted in healthy debate.

Whittle finally got into education in 1989, when he started a TV news program for schools called Channel One. He would provide the programming — Anderson Cooper was an anchor — and the TVs and other necessary equipment for free. In exchange, Channel One would be required viewing. And then, just as in doctor’s offices, Whittle would sell advertisers a lucrative and captive audience.

By 1993, Channel One reached almost 12,000 schools and 8 million students in nearly every state with news — and ads for Doritos, soda and candy bars. The idea of forcing schoolchildren to watch ads for junk food was deeply controversial, but the venture itself was highly successful. Then, a year later, a New Yorker article alleged that Whittle Communications had failed to pay more than $10 million in taxes and described the company as engaging in “aggressive accounting practices.” Whittle says that the company paid all its taxes over a 25-year period. A major accounting firm handled the books, and no shareholders took any legal action that would bring to light any irregularities. “Based on everything I know, [the claims] are inaccurate,” he says.

Channel One was sold for $240 million ($60 million less than expected), and the rest of Whittle Communications’ assets were ultimately sold off to various buyers (Channel One ceased broadcasting last year). But by then Whittle was already in the midst of another venture.

Students at an opening-day assembly. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

In 1991, with his publishing company at its peak, Whittle announced his first effort at reinventing education: the Edison Project (later Edison Schools), a national network of for-profit charter schools. Whittle predicted 1,000 schools educating 2 million students in 15 years. He expected to raise $2.5 billion to $3 billion for just the first 200 schools.

He was counting on a national voucher system to populate his schools, but when one was not enacted, he switched to competing for contracts to manage existing urban schools, many of them struggling. The company faced an uphill battle signing up schools: Charter schools were new. Unions were opposed to the longer hours and lower pay, school boards feared losing control, and parents were concerned that the for-profit company would sacrifice quality. “It was like trying to do an elementary school on Omaha Beach,” recalls Whittle. Edison wound up with small numbers of schools spread across the country, all with different curriculums and requirements. The effort was exhausting, says Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University who became chief executive of Edison. “The frustrations and difficulties after 10 years or so just really added up.”

Some observers were not sympathetic. Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of “Education and the Commercial Mindset,” questions Whittle’s entire approach. For-profit models are a poor fit for schools, he says. Education is not a product like a car that can be returned if defective. Children are not the best judges of their education, and parents have a hard time knowing what their kids are and aren’t learning. School boards, which paid for Edison’s services with taxpayer money, are even further removed. “In my opinion, the idea was doomed from the beginning,” Abrams says.

Moreover, when the CEO of a school spends lavishly on himself, as Whittle did — after he married and had children, he bought two Dakota apartments and combined them into one; his six-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot home on 11 acres in East Hampton, N.Y., has been listed for $140 million — parents might wonder what educational priority was sacrificed for the exec’s salary. “There is too much opportunity in a school to cut corners,” says Abrams. “The public purpose of a school calls for putting as much money into educating kids as possible.”

Whittle sees things differently. Students, he says, are partners in judging a school, and families make informed, considered decisions when they choose one. “I would not agree that education is something you can’t assess,” he says. “It’s not as easy to assess as a fast-food restaurant, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

At the end of 1994, according to “Class Clowns,” Edison was low on funds and facing the possibility of closure. In early 1995, Whittle sold off some of his art and homes to come up with $15 million to entice a $12 million investment. Schmidt and two friends put in $3 million. By 1999, Whittle had raised $232 million from investment banks and individuals and took the company public. Edison raised a further $260 million from stock offerings, and the stock more than doubled in price to a high of $38.75 in 2001.

The success, however, was short-lived. Edison peaked at 133 schools — most of them management contracts — a fraction of the 1,000 Whittle had envisioned. As school districts demanded metrics to judge the schools’ performance, Edison became increasingly focused on math and reading scores. And, says Abrams, the evidence for educational success is mixed, at best. Among Edison’s 20 Philadelphia schools, the K-8 schools posted better test results than similar schools, but middle schools performed about the same or worse than peer schools. Whittle maintains that Edison overall did “somewhat better than traditional public schools.”

By August 2002, the company’s stock was trading for less than $1 a share. For many years, it cost the company more to run its schools than it was paid. According to Abrams’s book, between 1996 and 2000, the bigger Edison got, the more money it lost. Whittle, however, says that by the time the company reached $400 million in revenue, the vast majority of individual contracts were profitable, and the company had a modest profit margin overall. Other factors, such as political fights over the Philadelphia school system and overall market sentiment, led to the fall in the stock price, he says.

Edison was taken private in 2003 for a lowly $1.76 a share, and a decade later the company was divided up and sold off. Whittle, who concedes little about his businesses’ shortcomings, agrees that other charter school models have fared better than Edison’s. “In general, the nonprofit model in charter schools has evolved at a more rapid rate than the for-profit model,” he says. Nevertheless, he is proud of Edison. Several of its charter schools have survived, including Washington’s Friendship Public Charter School network, which educates 4,500 students. Moreover, Whittle says, Edison’s problems did not dampen investor enthusiasm for his subsequent ventures. “The fact that in all of these cases I was able to attract the capital that I needed actually says something,” he told me. “What it says is that capital did pretty well. Not at every moment ... but if you look at them overall, there are a lot of happy investors.”

Michael Moe is one of them. A co-founder of Woodside, Calif.-based GSV Asset Management, Moe says he personally invested $250,000 in Edison before the company went public, and he made a large return. GSV invested $15 million in a subsequent Whittle project, Avenues: The World School — which was a precursor to his current venture. “I am a huge Chris Whittle fan,” says Moe, who compares Whittle’s visionary talents to those of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Elon Musk. “Chris has the very unusual capability of seeing things how they can be, not how they are.”

Other investors have had a different experience: Time Inc. wrote off its investment in Whittle Communications and did not invest new funds in Edison. Nevertheless, investors continue to trust Whittle with their money. He has enthusiastic backers for his new school, thanks in large part to Bruce P. Kelly, chief executive of Nolan Securities. A firm believer whose son was in the second graduating class at Avenues, Kelly helped bring in several partners of the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, who pooled their own money to invest in the Whittle School. Kelly also had a connection to Hony Capital, a Beijing-based private equity firm, which also invested.

Whittle, says Knee, “is obviously an extraordinary salesperson.” That seems to be the consensus among those who have worked with him. Kelly sees Whittle as “a genuine visionary. When he persuades people, it isn’t like he’s selling refrigerators. He’s selling his heart and soul of what he believes in, what he’s always done. And it just has the ring of truth.” Schmidt is more succinct: “He could sell snow to Eskimos.”

For his part, Whittle does not see his earlier ventures as failures. Just seven years after its opening, Avenues is one of New York’s largest private schools. None of his companies, he points out, has ever gone bankrupt, and investors made money. “It was a very good long run,” he says of Edison. “I would have liked to see it play out longer, but with that said, I am proud of what we did.”

Teacher Scott Kley with students during the opening-day assembly at the school. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Whittle’s emails read like postcards from a globe-trotting relative. “Hello from Hong Kong en route to Shenzhen,” he begins, and signs off with: “Hope Washington is not as hot as Dubai.” As the opening dates for his first two campuses approached, he traveled almost constantly, looking for sites for new campuses, meeting with potential investors and recruiting talent. Sitting in the back of a chauffeured black SUV taking us from the Four Seasons in Georgetown to the D.C. campus, he took out a large iPad and swiped through images of buildings and construction sites the company is considering, stopping on an aerial view of a half-built edifice. “This is Brooklyn,” he said and paused for a beat. “No, no. This is India.”

Opening a school in one country is hard enough. But tackling a half dozen or more, as Whittle is doing, is mind-boggling. Beyond navigating real estate transactions, design and construction, he also has to deal with the tight regulations that often cover pre-K-through-12 education overseas.

China, where Whittle intends to open as many as 11 of his 30-plus planned campuses, is a major component of his business plan. Chinese families value education and can increasingly afford to pay for it, he says. Chinese students already flock to American boarding and day schools, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, leading some institutions to open campuses in Asia to meet the demand.

According to a 2018 report by consulting firm Deloitte, the number of students at international schools in China is expected to increase by 10 percent each year. So Whittle has the right idea at the right time, says Whittle School board member Benson Lu, managing director of Hong Kong-based private equity and investment management firm RT Capital, which has invested $55 million in the new institution. “If he is able to get his idea off the ground, it will be a multibillion-dollar business in 10 years,” says Lu. Still, China remains a risky market. For-profit schools are banned in first through ninth grades, so Whittle has to set up a nonprofit to run the schools there. Liu Fang, associate director of financial advisory for Deloitte China, says that the government intends to strengthen its regulation of the relationships between a nonprofit and its overseas for-profit parent company, but the details are not yet clear. And growing tensions between the United States and China are also a concern.

The ultimate question for the Whittle School is whether enough parents will be willing to pay for what it’s offering. And if so, can the business become profitable and sustainable for the long term? Whittle has already tried many of his ideas at Avenues, which was also supposed to open campuses around the world. Today it has only two others — one in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and an early-childhood school in Shenzhen. Whittle left the school in 2015 and won’t talk on the record about why. “A new investor wanted to run things,” says Schmidt, who was chairman of Avenues but left with Whittle.

Many of Whittle’s ideas aren’t particularly unique. Plenty of independent schools are taking up experiential, project-based learning. Round Square, an international network of 200 schools, encourages collaboration and engagement with students worldwide. The Washington International School teaches students in English and a second language. Holton-Arms, a Bethesda-based all-girl 3-12 school, has language immersion programs in France, Spain and Italy. Students have studied in Rwanda and at a partner school in Peru. “Those kinds of programs exist all over the world,” Whittle acknowledges. “But in terms of depth and intensity, I think this is a whole other order of magnitude.”

While independent education is booming in China, it’s stagnant here. According to the independent school association, independent school enrollment has hovered at around 1 to 2 percent of U.S. students for decades. And the Whittle School is more expensive than competing schools — the $49,000 tuition is nearly $5,000 more than at nearby Sidwell Friends.

Whittle’s market analysis has more to do with potential — seeing what can be rather than what is, as Moe says. When considering a city, the Whittle team determines demand by comparing the number of existing private school seats to the number of people who could afford private school tuition. If he can build the best school, Whittle maintains, families will enroll. Washington’s large contingent of international families is a bonus. “We think there is a lot of additional demand here, particularly for what we are doing,” he says. “But you only find that out by doing it.” Others are skeptical that Whittle will be able to enroll 150 students per grade. “Do I think there is this huge latent unmet demand” in Washington? asks Holton-Arms head Susanna A. Jones. “No, I don’t think so.”

As for Whittle’s for-profit structure, despite his assurances that it will have no impact on the education offered, it could raise parental concerns about what the school might be scrimping on to support its growth and profits. “Given how much money they are paying, these parents are going to be quite demanding,” says Abrams. “If they find out that class size is smaller at other schools, or they have more science labs, they are going to lean on the administration.” Whittle is prepared for that. If the school ever cut corners, families would know and could decide to leave at the end of the year, he says. “I think there is a lot of accountability.”

Vicki Einsel and her husband are sending their 15-year-old son, Liam, to Whittle. They live in Darnestown, Md., and though the 90-minute morning commute is daunting, their son fell in love with the school and the teachers he met at information sessions. He was particularly taken with the project-based learning and the “X days,” weekly experiential learning days where students go into the community. The global education seemed almost beside the point. “He sees himself as a trailblazer, a groundbreaker, and when he met the faculty and administration and the other kids looking at the school, he saw kindred spirits,” says Einsel.

Though impressed by the quality of the staff and administration, she did wonder, before school started, about the for-profit structure and how it might affect school spirit and the enthusiasm families want to feel. “How do you build community without fundraising, or get to know the other parents without galas and bake sales?” she mused. A few weeks into school, Einsel has her answer. Ice cream socials, movie nights and parent coffees arranged by the faculty and staff are creating the community she craved. The Einsels feel at home and engaged. “I’m thrilled our son is attending Whittle,” Einsel says. It’s an auspicious sign.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Edison stock peaked at $36.75. The stock went as high as $38.75. It also said that Edison lost money as it grew between 1998 and 2000. The correct years are 1996 and 2000. This version has been updated.

Jim Rendon is a writer in Washington. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Designed by Twila A. Waddy.

Whittle speaks to students at the opening-day assembly at the Whittle School. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

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