Chris Whittle: still thinking big
No one doubts that Chris Whittle has lived a remarkable life. In 1991, after a long and successful stint as the head of his own communications company, the brash media baron announced that he would use his millions to radically reshape the nation's underperforming public school system. Over the next five years, he announced, his new company, Edison Schools, would build 1,000 for-profit schools. The project would cost $2.5 billion. The public education establishment scoffed; reformers grimaced and hoped for the best.
Fifteen years later, Whittle's grand dreams haven't quite come to fruition. Edison stock, after a heady initial public offering in 1999, lost 98 percent of its value over the next three years. In 2003, Whittle took the company private once again. Rather than striking out on its own to create break-the-mold schools, Edison now works within the education system, making its money by managing 157 public schools under contract with local districts, hiring and firing principals, and streamlining finances. But in a book published this month, Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education, Whittle has dared to dream big once again. Disturbed by the fact that 15 million American kids fail to achieve even basic literacy levels, Edison's founder has proposed another radical idea: an entirely new school design, one that would raise principal salaries by a factor of three, that would employ half as many teachers as it does now and pay them twice as muchin schools that would only have half as many classes. All this, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Is Chris Whittle once again promising more than any reformer can reasonably deliver? Senior Editor Justin Ewers spoke with him earlier this week.
In your book's first two sentences, you seem to be reassuring readers that you're no longer quite the radical you once were: "Some people like to build new houses. I'm a renovation man." This sounds like a new Chris Whittle.
In some ways, I'm a radical on this, and in some ways I'm a moderate. We must as a nation confront the whole question of what I call school design in a very, very aggressive way. We have a 100-year-old school design, maybe even older. There are clear signs of educational mental fatigue. We can't take this particular design much further than we have. We have not, as a country, been imaginative in what new schools should and could be.
A lot of people would say, "Baloney, shut it down and start over." But there are plenty of people out there that will embrace change. In that respect, I am a moderate, and I believe you can achieve something significant within the current construct.
But you say you're not asking the federal government to put any more money into ed spending.
I'm not advocating any real increase in total educational spending. What I'm advocating is a dramatic increase in research and development spending on education. In the scheme of what we as a nation are spending, it's not a very big number. If we took R&D spending at simply pro rata levels with healthcare, you would be spending at the federal level about $9 billion a year. Though that sounds like a lot of money, on a $400 billion scale [our total national education spending], it's not a lot.