A Reality Check
The 2000 Miller Forum on Government, Business and the Economy:
California's Power Elite Shape Education Policy
by Athena Perrakis
The fourth annual Miller Forum on Government, Business and the Economy
entitled, "Competition, Performance and Finance: Shaping Education
Policy" was held on February 24, 2000 at the University of Southern
California. Noted politicians, professors and educators from California
joined speakers from Yale and Columbia Universities to discuss current
issues in education reform. Three main questions underscored the day's
panel remarks: What kind of education do we want? How will we pay for
it? And who will supply the education? CEOs and superintendents from
the state's largest school districts (Los Angeles included) were present
to address the challenges and opportunities facing administrators in
primary and secondary education.
In theory, the Miller Forum sought to unite public and private sectors
in a dialogue about various financial and social tensions currently
plaguing the educational system. Hank Levin, the Keynote speaker,
explained the notion of "democratic localism," which advocates, "letting
local groups decide what their schools should be like." He qualified
his statement by noting that "within states there are major differences
in the schooling process, and much prejudice exists." However, my own
view is that within the population who attended the Miller Forum, the
same kinds of tensions and prejudices exist: when asked, the majority of
those in attendance, who had school aged children, admitted a preference
for private or charter schools, by a margin of nearly two to one. As
Levin praised the "freedom to choose [between educational systems]," a
freedom he described as a "time honored right of parents," he failed to
note the irony of his own words: that at a forum discussion where
theoretically the public institutions would receive as much attention as
their private counterparts, he and many others favored the private system.
Their bias was represented not only in word, but also in deed: only two of
the day's discussants addressed public education, and then only in oblique
and arguably negative terms.
Brief mention was made of incentives for public teachers, such as housing
subsidies or bonuses for increased tenure and field specialization.
Howard Miller, CEO of the Los Angeles Unified School District, noted the
"catastrophic educational failure" within his organization; the result
has been a class of graduates who cannot function in the "real world."
He articulated the need for systemic change, but a clear solution seemed
elusive. The only person who boasted success within the realm of public
education was Ira Toibin, who is Superintendent of Schools in the Palos
Verdes Peninsula Unified School District -- ironically, one of the
wealthiest districts in the state of California.
Later in the afternoon, Jim Guthrie, Director of the Peabody Center for
Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, refocused the day's discussion
with the following truism: "only a few jobs are left that you can hold
without an education." He claimed that public education insists on
improvement, but cannot articulate a plan for strategic success. The
federal government, he argued, has failed the educational systems in this
country by "avoiding issues of race, disability, etc." And the biggest
challenge of the 21st century, according to Guthrie, will be rendering
education effective, not just accessible.
Perhaps, but a self-important group of hyper-educated, largely male,
predominantly Caucasian, and mostly upper class capitalists cannot
logically be part of a solution to a problem that they themselves have
helped create and perpetuate. Only two women served as discussants at the
Miller Forum, and both were Caucasian; neither were from the public sector.
The only person who actively defended public education was a white man
from a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, whose support for the system seemed more
ironic than inspirational. Of course, the most significant challenge to
public education came not from the participants at the conference, but
from our venue: the University of Southern California, one of the most
well-known and prestigious, private, research universities in the country.
What did I expect?