The Best Schools Money Can Buy

Giving Kids the Bu$inessThe Commercialization of America's Schools. Alex MolinarWestview Press. 223 pages. $19.00.In the October issue of "The Atlantic Monthly," Peter Schrag provides a cogent rebuttal to the now commonplace charge that American public education is in dire straits, as has never been seen before. Schrag admits that our schools do have problems, but he deftly navigates through the history of public education in America, showing that in every generation schools have had serious critics, predicting educational apocalypse. The premise upon which Schrag rests his argument -- "Things are obviously not quite as simple as the rhetoric of failure suggests" -- is shared by Alex Molnar, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a national authority on the commercialization of public education.Molnar's Giving Kids the Business is a survey of the American public education system, and the increasing encroachment of the business world into that sphere, since the Reagan years. Like Schrag, Molnar believes that the common "the sky is falling" chorus about America's schools is largely unfounded, and moreover, that looking to the private sector is not the way to help public schools with the problems they do face. Giving Kids the Business proceeds to explicate and then belittle almost every effort of businesses to involve themselves in improving American education.Molnar has philosophical problems with allowing private companies to manipulate educational issues: "Each reform supports the fiction popular with business leaders that, if the system were made more efficient, there is no reason Americans couldn't maintain a universal system of public schools and provide every child with a high-quality education without spending more money. In other words, unleash the market and stand back as thousands of entrepreneurs create better schools." Molnar's intense skepticism is apparent from the first, but he doesn't stop there; in each chapter he examines and dismisses a particular approach by the private sector, recounting why it fails to help, and indeed often hurts, public schools.Each of Molnar's sometimes lengthy chapters is broken into numerous briefer subsections, with the result that Giving Kids the Business is a remarkably smooth read: it doesn't get bogged down in jargon or theory, specific topics are easy to find, and the style is akin to that of analytical journalism. Embedded in Molnar's readable and concise prose are prolific footnotes; any education activist or researcher would be well advised to begin with this book. While Molnar's own prose is pithy and sometimes spare, he acknowledges not only major government reports but also a plethora of local newspaper stories relevant to his topics.An extraordinary number of these newspaper articles originate in Texas: George W. Bush is talking phonics; the Edison Project is expanding public-schools-for-profit programs in two Texas communities; Channel One commercial "news" is maintaining more captive viewer-students in Texas than in any other state; charter schools are receiving increasing support from the Legislature; and voucher programs are gaining momentum. Giving Kids the Business is in effect a manual for understanding the issues beneath educational "reform" rhetoric in Texas. Such a primer is especially timely given the current school-district-by-school-district increase in property taxes that is inevitably following the state's increase in the homestead exemption. Here we are again, right back where we started.One of the book's strengths is its analytical depth: Molnar thoroughly unmasks the political and economic alliances, friendships, and quid pro quos beneath many of these "educational reform" schemes. A strong example of this is the relationship between Chris Whittle, founder of Channel One and the Edison Project, and Lamar Alexander -- former president of the University of Tennessee, former Tennessee governor, former Bush administration Secretary of Education, champion of public school vouchers, and 1996 Republican presidential candidate. Noting that Alexander and Whittle first met as students at the University of Tennessee, Molnar explains the repercussions of this friendship on public policy: "Without a hint of embarrassment, Alexander was willing to make big money in Whittle Communications [Whittle's company that encompasses all of his educational initiatives, from publishing to Channel One (which he has since sold) to the Edison Project] ... Not surprisingly, Alexander has had little if anything to say about advertising or special interest propaganda in schools and the negative effect such materials might have on the quality of a school's educational program." This almost offhand investigative reporting sustains the book, and Molnar persistently draws the important connections between educational reform and political opportunism.In fact, one of the book's weaknesses is the absence of any educational solutions save that of putting an end to efforts to replace public money with business money and its attached priorities. Ultimately, Molnar's book is not an educational treatise, but a political report, and he aims primarily to point out the causes, misperceptions, and repeated failures of corporate attempts to buy influence in public education under the guise of improving efficiency.It is in this movement from abstract ideas to concrete details that Molnar's book has its best moments. He notes, for example, that "Total corporate contributions to kindergarten through twelfth-grade (K-12) education in 1990 would run the nation's schools for less than two hours." Similarly, he points out that in numerous states the tax breaks that companies receive in return for their "generous" support of public education often exceed the donations themselves, as much as ten-fold. Such anecdotes and statistics illuminate how very real Molnar's complaints are, and nowhere do they resonate more than in Texas, where school finance is tangled beyond comprehension.But Giving Kids the Business left me wanting, most specifically for a greater sense of educational history. In this regard, Schrag's Atlantic Monthly article almost perfectly complements Giving Kids the Business. Schrag demonstrates in detail that American education has always had its critics, and he attempts to explain why such criticism came to the forefront in the 1980s. Molnar and Schrag share a frustration that education makes the news only in negative ways; Schrag places that frustration in a usable context. "A growing number of people, in the name of world-class standards, would abandon, through vouchers, privitization, and other means, the idea of the common school altogether. Before we do that, we'd better be sure that things are really as bad as we assume."This is where Schrag and Molnar coincide: public education is better off than everyone thinks, and the problems that we do face do not merit the wholesale surrender of public schools to the many snake-oil salesmen of privatization. The history of those salesmen, prior to the Reagan years, is the missing link of Giving Kids the Business. Only in passing does Molnar mention failed attempts at voucher programs in the 1960s, or other prior privatization experiments. What has gone around, does not need to come around, again.Still, Giving Kids the Business provides a thorough and informative outline of a topic of growing importance. Anyone concerned by George W. Bush's cavalier notions of educational reform, or confounded that their kids are watching commercial television every day in school, should give Molnar a read. As he convincingly argues, "The challenge facing American societyÉis to take control of our lives back from the market." It's a lesson, unfortunately, they're not likely to be teaching in the public schools.

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