Chris Whittle: still thinking big
There's a way to blend local control, which is literally part of the genetic code of American public educationthat's why we have 15,000 school districtswith the private sector. We just have to figure out how public and private entities can work together.
I'll give you a really interesting analog of that: If you look at an airport, the physical airport itself is local, but the airlines are global. As you're taxiing out, you're seeing Swissair, Lufthansa, American, Unitedall those are global, private, for-profit institutions. They are parked at gates that are local, public authorities. It's a very interesting construct if you think about it. School systems can morph into similar kinds of constructs, where they're locally controlled, but they're in partnerships with private players.
So, you'd like to see private companies, the Lufthansas, in charge of what Lufthansas are good atwhich, in a school, might be finances, cleaning, food, or enrollment. What about some of the grayer areas, though, like curriculum or instruction? How do you decide, in something like this ongoing debate over intelligent design, say, who decides what gets taught?
If you're going to be in this long term and successfully, one of the things you have to avoid [is] what I would call the distracting battles. For example: In every school that we're in, there are rules and regulations regarding uniforms. We're not going to engage in those fights. Whatever the local custom is, we're for it. What we care about is how we're going to move achievement forward. Many of the battles that consume huge amounts of time aren't central to literacy. Let local policymakers make those decisions. We're pretty conscious of that, and I think it's one of the things we've done pretty well.
One of the most fascinating things about the new Chris Whittle, at least as expressed in this book, is listening to you, a businessman, talk about what a great thing it is that there are now 40 other companies out there doing the same thing Edison is doing. You seem to be genuinely happy not to have a corner on the school design market. Are you just glad to have someone around to help you take the flak?
I'm glad you brought this question up. Let's start with the most important thing: America should not be looking for one school design. We have one school design right now. We all went to the same school. If a Martian came here and looked at every school in the country, they would say, "They look all the same!"
What we need is tremendous diversity in school design. Through that diversity, that's when you start getting better designs and better answers, and you need competition. Competition raises all boats, in every respect. One other big advantage of many competitors: When a school district is thinking about recruiting only one entity, opponents can demonize that entity. If we're there with many colleagues, then the focus is on the concept of what we're doing, and if people look at the concept of what we're doing, they tend to respond in a pretty rational and reasonable way.