A displacement of civic values

ROBERT KUTTNER

June 16, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

HAMILTON Jordan, the former Jimmy Carter aide who has signed on as Ross Perot's campaign co-chairman, is a symbol of where American civic life is headed. Mr. Jordan's regular job is vice chairman of Whittle Communications -- the company that markets 10-minute news bites to school classrooms, and is now organizing a national chain of for-profit private schools (and hired away the president of Yale to run it).

What Chris Whittle is to education, Mr. Perot is to politics -- the displacement of civic values with the commercial values of the marketplace. As a candidate, Ross Perot is a creature of two trends that are poisonous for the civic democracy of Madison and Tocqueville -- big money and mass media.

For two decades big money has been driving out political participation, just as mass media has been driving out political deliberation. Mr. Perot, for all his "outsider" bluster, is not the alternative to the political trends of the past 20 years, but the intensification of them.

Mr. Whittle, likewise, represents the assault of market and marketing on what remains of civic values in education. His Channel One essentially bribes school districts to run his quickie current events shows, in exchange for video equipment. Then he sells the captive audience to big advertisers, like Coke and Nike, seeking a teen market.

These thoughts about the link between Mr. Whittle and Mr. Perot were running through my mind last week, at my son's high school graduation. Watching 431 seniors of various races, classes and grade point averages graduate from Brookline High in suburban Boston, it crossed my mind that public education, properly done, embodies just about everything I value as a citizen.

Everybody in town gets to attend equally, regardless of family income. The laggards are not thrown on the free market's scrap heap, but are kept after school for extra help. The employees are not entrepreneurs; they work for modest salaries, out of a sense of service. In this age of the celebration of private endeavors and contempt for public pursuits, I'll take a teacher over a bond trader any day.

The public school system is also the last bastion of local civic life for the harried middle-aged. Many of us who are too busy juggling work and family life to serve on town committees or solicit for the United Way nonetheless find time to attend PTA meetings and have teacher conferences. It is around the local public school that we meet our neighbors as citizens. Yes, private schools also have communities, but far narrower ones.

To be sure, my kids are lucky enough to live in a town with dedicated teachers and fine schools, though hardly lavish ones. There are many towns in my state with more wealth and higher per-pupil outlays -- some nearly twice ours -- but my town still has exemplary schools and strong community support. My kids also get to rub elbows with kids from a wide variety of social classes and races -- in a school whose core ethic is fiercely middle class.

Not all public school systems, of course, are this intact. But that is not the fault of public education nor is privatization the remedy. Rather, many public schools are casualties of financing formulas that base a local school's budget on the local property wealth. The very communities with the most dire social problems are expected to solve them through underfunded schools. Moreover, society dumped most of the turmoil of racial integration onto the public schools without appreciating that a "neighborhood school" offered something of genuine civic value and was not simply a code word for segregation.

If Chris Whittle's scheme succeeds and privatized schools begin driving out public ones, it will chip away at our strongest remaining venue of local civic democracy. It will be one more source of the fragmentation of America.

Mr. Whittle has said his schools will spend about $5,500 per pupil -- about what our public schools spend. But out of that must come profits as well as support for the 20 percent of the kids he says he will take on scholarship. That means the actual per-student spending will be more like $3,500. Although Mr. Whittle says he will depend heavily on parent involvement, his entire commercial approach runs counter to the ethic of service and volunteerism.

Mr. Perot, for his part, won acclaim for raising standards in the Texas public schools. But he did so by relying heavily on standardized tests and rigidly mandated curricula -- just the sort of inflexibility that draws criticism to public education and leaves innovation to the likes of a Chris Whittle.

Instead of rigid public schools, and "school choice" associated with private schools, we need to liberate the creative potential of public education. Whittle-style schools, paid for by hard-pressed parents, will only undermine what's left of the constituency for tax-supported common schools. And next will come pressure for private-school vouchers or tax credits, diverting even more resources from public schools.

Ross Perot, you may recall, made his first billion as a Medicare contractor. It is no accident that Hamilton Jordan bridges Chris Whittle and Ross Perot.

They are two of a kind: private entrepreneurs who live off -- and diminish -- our public realm.

Robert Kuttner writes a weekly column on economic matters.

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