Politics & Policy

Open the Gates

A multimillion-dollar education misadventure.

Bill Gates and Eli Broad didn’t become billionaires by tinkering around with hopeless old models. Gates got rich selling the world new computer software it needed and wanted, while Broad’s KB Homes provided better, cheaper houses.

Unfortunately, offering something new and better isn’t Broad and Gates’s strategy for their joint education-reform effort. While these titans of industry might be consummate business winners, a forum sponsored by their $60 million Strong American Schools initiative last Wednesday made clear that when it comes to education, they’re backing a tired, big-government loser.

Strong American Schools seeks to get education high on the presidential campaign agenda and push for “American education standards,” “effective teachers in every classroom,” and “more time and support for learning.”

So what does $60 million get you when you’re trying to put education on the national political map? So far, not much. Education has been almost invisible in the presidential race. During the panel discussion, ED in ‘08 chairman Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and superintendent of Los Angeles schools, argued that issues like the faltering economy and national security are hogging all the air time.

Romer is right about other issues eclipsing education and freezing out ED in ‘08’s priorities, but there’s more to it. The minor tweaks and empty rhetoric ED in ’08 offers up — I mean, who isn’t for effective teachers? — are as inspiring as bologna on Wonderbread . . . without mustard. Worse, the national standards Romer and most of the other panelists suggested sound like a more intrusive No Child Left Behind Act, the one education issue that has gotten significant campaign attention — because people loathe it.

“Hillary Clinton’s most reliable applause line is about ending the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind education program,” Bloomberg News recently reported. Barack Obama, for his part, wouldn’t scrap NCLB, but would replace its test-driven accountability with multiple, non-threatening measures. Finally, while John McCain supports NCLB, his campaign website focuses on moving power from government to parents.

“[A] public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses,” McCain’s education statement declares.

The Arizona senator might be onto something, but you’d have probably never guessed it if you had listened to the ED in ‘08 panel. I say “probably” because amidst all the panel’s former and present government officials sat Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the wildly successful Knowledge is Power Program schools. Feinberg paid lip service to better standards from above but emphasized power from below, explaining that KIPP already has the effective teachers, longer school days, and culture of success the other panelists merely talked about because its schools are independent and parents choose them. KIPP succeeds because it isn’t controlled by politics.

Feinberg’s fellow panelists, unfortunately, didn’t get his message — one a lot like McCain’s — and continued to obsess over moving authority further up government ladders and crafting classic political strategies such as “consensus building” and “leadership.” They just didn’t see, or refused to acknowledge, that the key to transforming education is autonomous, parent-chosen schools.

Ironically, the countries the panelists are most afraid will pass us by have clearly gotten the memo about free markets. China and India have explosive economies because they’ve torn down stultifying economic controls. In education, the ascendant South Koreans consume more private schooling than the people of any other industrialized nation. Even parents in the world’s poorest slums know the score. Ongoing work by British researcher James Tooley in impoverished places like Ga, Ghana, and Hyderabad, India, find poor parents turning in droves to for-profit private schools in order to move their kids ahead.

And the message isn’t just being heard abroad. States are also getting it. Indeed, on the same day the Ed in ‘08 panelists got together to chat about their favorite top-down policy proposals, Georgia became the sixth state to offer tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds. All told, 14 states and the District of Columbia offer tax credit or voucher programs, and the vast majority allow charter schools.

School choice — really, just plain freedom — is where the future’s at, and if Gates and Broad want to replicate in education the success they’ve had in business, they’d better change their product fast.

– Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.


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