Book Review: A Crash Course in Profitable Politics

Published January 1, 2006

Review of Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education
Written by Chris Whittle
(Riverhead Books, 2005)
269 pages, $16.47, ISBN 1594489025

Through most of Chris Whittle’s Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education, the reader is treated to an insightful explanation of why business works better than public education. In the end, though, disappointing reality sets in.

Whittle, the founder of Edison Schools, the nation’s best-known and most controversial for-profit education management company, offers many reasons why America’s educational system is failing while business thrives. At the center of it all, though, is “scale”–the ability of a big organization to give “birth to certain types of creativity” through “large-scale research and development.” Getting education to scale is the main goal of Whittle’s book.

To illustrate the importance of scale, Whittle points to corporations like Ford and IBM and marvels at free-market innovation. “Though all cars still have five wheels, four on the ground and one to steer with, there have been enormous improvements over the cars of a century ago,” Whittle writes, noting, “car manufacturers have made such improvements while holding the price of an entry-level car basically the same, in current dollars, as when Henry Ford first introduced the model T!”

Not surprisingly, Whittle sees the proliferation of schools run by companies like Edison as the key to taking American education to scale. Whittle muses that in an ideal future, almost every district in the nation would be running its schools through management firms. At this point, Whittle seems ready to call forcefully on the nation’s leaders to tap into the power of the free market and make his vision a reality.

Abandoning the Market

And then comes the disappointment. Instead of championing the free market, Whittle argues that both the American health care system and military work better than education, and notes the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health pay private contractors tens of billions of dollars every year to conduct research and development. Whittle then proposes the federal government take charge of education innovation as well.

He even suggests legislation–an imaginary Education Innovation Act of 2007–through which the federal government would spend more than $45 billion over 15 years to launch new K-12 school designs, establish universities to train principals and teachers, and fund education research.

Whittle’s solution is incongruent with most of the book’s praise for the private sector. It also makes little sense in light of his experience.

As Whittle acknowledges many times in Crash Course, since its inception Edison has struggled to overcome almost incessant political obstacles that have kept it out of schools.

Unfortunately, Crash Course suggests that what Whittle has learned over the years is that rather than fighting politics, it is more profitable to use them.

Trawling for Federal Cash

Whittle’s proposed legislation, for instance, would finance the “creation and significant launch of three highly innovative K-12 school designs,” a perfect vehicle for a company like Edison to get large-scale federal cash. Moreover, the book itself seems to call for truces with long-term Edison enemies such as teacher unions, by declaring, for example, that teachers’ salaries should be at least doubled.

Whittle would pay for this huge cost increase largely by shrinking the teacher force, but he takes pains to assure the unions that their income would be unchanged because teachers’ salaries would be much larger, and he promises that no current teachers will be harmed because the changes he advocates “would take years to roll out nationally.”

Ignoring Its Own Implications

Finally, Whittle attacks school choice, the reform that by its very market-like nature is best able to create a dynamic, innovative, education industry. Whittle includes an epilogue in which he reprints several letters he sent to various policymakers touting his plan. In one, to high-profile union presidents, he says they should support his plan because it is not a move in the direction of “privatization,” whereas “a national voucher system could well fit that description.”

Overall, Crash Course furnishes welcome insight into both the free market’s potential to create innovation in public education and politics’ ability to thwart such innovation. For that reason alone it is a worthwhile read. In the end, though, it ignores its own message.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, DC.