Washington. -- We had a big and ominous business merger in the field of education this week. Tennessee entrepreneur Chris Whittle induced Benno C. Schmidt Jr. to leave the presidency of Yale University to run an education-for-profit scheme called the Edison Project.
By laying out some big bucks for Mr. Schmidt's name and prestige, Mr. Whittle obviously raised the stock of his plan to prove that if paid about $5,500 per pupil per year, his schools can deliver better education than the public schools. The money-grabbing potential has had Mr. Whittle's eyes glazing, given the fact that the Bush administration has been crying for authority to take money away from public schools and give it to parents who might prefer to send their kids to private and parochial schools.
The Whittle and Bush gambits will seem like manna for many parents who have swallowed the idea that public schools are gross and unredeemable failures, and that companies with a profit motive must rescue their children and the nation.
Well, excuse me if I demur, and say that the Whittle-Schmidt scheme for entrepreneurial education is not a lurch into nation-saving, educational philanthropy. It is a money-grubbing operation that will deprive even more the one-third of America's children who each year are left so uneducated that they cannot )) find jobs or respect in this society, let alone compete with the Japanese, Germans, Taiwanese.
I know a bit about high schools, public, private and parochial, as a result of five years of judging nominees for Project Excellence scholarships. I have seen that a graduate of a public high school in the affluent sections of this metropolitan area is the equal of graduates of the most prestigious private and parochial schools. I have also seen that a black valedictorian in one of the most deprived public high schools is not comparable in math and verbal skills to blacks who attend better public schools.
So we must not swallow generalized slanders of all public schools. This plays into the profit dreams of the Whittles, and blinds Americans to the urgent need to equalize educational opportunities in all the public schools.
You surely know that I have consistently opposed any and every proposal that would weaken the public school system. The Whittle-Schmidt business combined with George Bush's voucher scheme would be a disaster, because the poorest third of America's children will never populate Mr. Whittle's schools, and even with a fistful of Bush vouchers will be denied admittance to the best of the other private and parochial schools.
Messrs. Whittle and Schmidt promise that they will share their new ideas, innovations, technology with the public schools. They say that they will become the competition that will force the public schools to shape up. This is bull! Mr. Whittle knows that it will be money in his pocket every time a parent abandons public schools, hoping to expose a child to the ideas, technology and innovations they associate with a former president of Yale.
The tragedy is that in this nation there is still no strong voice in behalf of the children of America's shamefully-large underclass -- people who, even with a Bush voucher, will not be able to attend one of the Whittle-Schmidt schools.
We remain a society that is caught up wretchedly in the politics and profiteering of education. Our leaders are learning less than the most disadvantaged pupils in the schools of our most shameful ghettos.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.