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?