Whittle, C. (2005). Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education. New York: Riverhead Hardcover.
$24.95 ISBN 1594489025
Reviewed by Jim Horn
November 24, 2005
If you support the notion that publicly run, publicly controlled, public education is the imperfect, yet essential, public business that may be our best institutional tool for realizing a democratic republic in America, then you are likely to find plenty to disagree with in Chris Whittle’s vision (or is it a nightmare?) for turning schools into companies, companies that are to be paid for with tax dollars. With $400 billion annually at stake, the public schools are, by far, the juiciest prize for a new type of corporate welfare known as the EMO (education management organization). Chris Whittle’s new book, Crash Course. . ., lets us look down the sights as he takes aim at his biggest target yet.
Those, on the other hand, who favor a privatized education solution to all that is wrong, or imagined wrong, with American schools, will likely find Chris Whittle’s Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education a ground-breaking piece of wishful thinking. With the popularity of vouchers now on the same slope as recent presidential poll data, Whittle attempts to sculpt a vision for a hybrid American school, a new alternative to the “public school monopoly” that conservatives have railed against for the past 25 years. In this bravado new world of educational corporate welfare that Whittle projects out to the year 2030, the public school will remain public, in that public dollars pay the bills for personnel, transportation, food service, maintenance, and, of course, the contracting fee to Edison, Inc. or its MacSchool counterparts—yet private, in that education corporations organize, manage, hire principals who hire teachers, consult, assess, make merit pay recommendations based on those assessments, and, of course, get paid with public dollars that, in turn, make a 10% profit for the shareholders for the company. If this doesn’t sound good enough to get you to spend the $25 for this kind of visionary thinking, then add to this emerging educational utopia the need to increase class size, severely reduce the number of teachers, turn students into part-time clerical workers; and I am sure that you will agree that Whittle’s book will be required reading, at least by every reform industry lobbyist on K Street who is sure to get goose bumps at Whittles’ recurring focus on the 400 billion dollars that Americans spend on K-12 education every year.
What qualifies Whittle for such a far-reaching educational vision? For starters, he has a history of entrepreneurial education endeavors. Since the early 90s, he has effectively burned through several hundred million dollars in various failed ventures, including a scheme to offer textbooks with the same colorful Skittles and Snickers ads that became the hallmark of Whittle’s first big educational venture, Channel One. As a result of the Channel One success by a hometown boy with an expanding local payroll, Whittle Communications, in the late 1980s, was able to acquire a prime location in Knoxville for a palatial “publishing campus” downtown. Labeled derisively by locals as Whittle City, it was, nonetheless, resplendent with Italian marble, set in soft florescence, and exuding an Ivy League façade; and all of it ended up on the auction block only months after it was completed.
That venture proved to be Whittle’s first big flameout, forcing the sale of Channel One to cover the bills and leaving Whittle with a 7 million dollar estate in the Hamptons and something known then as the Edison Project, an outfit whose education privatization advisors prominently included Lamar Alexander, another local boy who was making a splash at the time as Bush 1’s Secretary of Education. By 1995 Whittle had turned that idea for a mass-market alternative to public education into Edison Schools, Inc., opening his first four Edison Schools in various locales around the country. By 1999 Whittle was ready to go public with the company, even though Edison posted a net loss of $50 million in the previous year. To make a long story short, by 2002 the stock was in free fall, moving from nearly 38 dollars a share to its low of 15 cents. By the following year, in a sweetheart deal that is even shocking by today’s standards of corporate crony politics, Whittle had found a benefactor in the State Pension Fund of Florida. With the support of Jeb Bush, the pension fund, whose largest constituency, ironically, happens to be public school teachers, not only bought out the failed company but also allowed Whittle to retain control, doubled his salary while offering him new stock options, provided loan extensions to repay debts, and gave more loans to keep the outfit afloat. (One can only guess what the Governor knew, or thought he knew, about the future movement of corporate welfare schools that would justify such an investment.) Part of the answer, or at least part of the gamble, may be found in the futuristic froth that characterizes Whittle’s current contribution to the literature of corporate socialism….
….There are several problems with this DoD analogy, but the most glaring one involves who will be allowed to propose and bid on the next “strike fighter” of education. Even with the renowned inefficiency of government as a documented fact, it does not seem to have occurred to Whittle that the federal government would never entertain bids for a new airplane from, let’s say, doughnut makers or funeral directors, regardless of how well these folks make and/or market their goods and services. Even the DoD (when it takes bids) goes to the people who know something about building airplanes, ones that can get off the ground and that can stay in the air, not just ones that look good, are fun to sit in, or make a big noise. Whittle would have Dunkin’ Donuts given equal consideration as Boeing, or let’s say Bill Gates’ thoughts on education heeded as readily as that of Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond—or John Dewey, for that matter.
I encourage you to read the entire review and the book.
The review is at: http://edrev.asu.edu/reviews/rev442.htm