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Super-Special Ed

After failing with for-profit public schools, Chris Whittle goes private.

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Chris Whittle has a new venture. The Upper East Sider who pumped TV news and junk-food ads into high schools with Channel One and tried to make money on public education with his Edison Schools is now launching Nations Academy, an international chain of for-profit elite private schools to compete with the likes of Brearley and Dalton. They’ll cater to people who want the best educations money can buy, and Whittle says they’ll turn a profit by running their schools more efficiently, finding economies of scale in their chain of large schools, and cutting down on typical private schools’ phalanx of teachers, counselors, and other staff.

Working with Sunny Varkey—a Dubai businessman who runs an expanding network of for-profit schools in the United Arab Emirates, Great Britain, and his native India—Whittle is putting one of his first two schools in Manhattan. (The other is in Bethesda, Maryland, outside D.C.) The plan calls for a $150 million, 220,000-square-foot campus on a patch of land that Douglas Durst controls on far West 57th Street. Construction in New York and Bethesda should start next year.

For this venture, Whittle has reteamed with his old pal Benno Schmidt, now CUNY’s chairman. The two first joined forces in the early nineties, when Whittle lured Schmidt from the Yale presidency to help launch Edison, but both were pushed aside in early 2007. Edison landed Whittle and Schmidt in Vanity Fair, and at its peak had a market capitalization of nearly $2 billion; it had fallen so far their ouster barely made the news. They now hold ceremonial titles with little responsibility, and the new managers have announced that the company is changing its name to EdisonLearning and diversifying into education software, after spending sixteen years and some $500 million trying to turn a profit on public-school management.

Whittle plans 60 campuses worldwide by 2021, producing up to $3 billion in annual revenue. The New York and D.C. schools are scheduled to open in 2011, each enrolling around 1,700 students from preschool through high school, some studying the International Baccalaureate curriculum; he’ll offer teachers up to six-figure salaries. Whittle plans to charge the same tuition as the high-end private schools in his markets. In New York, that’ll likely be around $40,000 by the time Whittle’s school opens.

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