Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

I never thought I’d be defending Rupert Murdoch and really I’m not.  I’m defending Wireless Generation sort of I guess.  Mostly I think I’m defending the idea that making money isn’t inherently evil.  Full disclosure: I haven’t made enough money in my life to know this for a fact. But I’m pretty sure that making a profit is an integral part of American society and power.  Of course there are villainous billionaires out there and Rupert Murdoch is a pretty good villain.  But there are villainous public sector workers too, and villainous Nigerian princes, and villainous writers too.

Valerie Strauss’ recent blog post paints a picture that makes for profit education companies evil because they are trying to make a profit.  She makes a couple observations that could be construed as a conflict of interest.  Basically Joel Klein left New York City Schools to work for Murdoch and now Murdoch’s company News Corp has purchased Wireless Generation, a company that does some big business with New York City Schools, and with other districts as well.  That is literally the extent of what I know so you can be the judge.  Doesn’t feel that iffy to me.  If anything it speaks to Klein thinking highly of Wireless Gen’s work.

Ms. Strauss actually acknowledges that “for-profit business can and do bring valuable products and services to public schools.”  Her major issue appears to be that for-profit companies care more about money and investors than they do about public schools and the kids.  Maybe that’s true although for-profit companies are also capable of believing in a mission.  Also self interest doesn’t exist exclusively in for-profit companies.  I can think of a few local DC watchdog groups whose interest seems to lie more in legitimizing their own existence than in actually creating real positive change for the kids. 

Teachers unions are great examples of institutions attached to education whose interest do not lie with students but with teachers.  That obviously doesn’t mean there is no place for unions in education. They serve their purposes and Ms Strauss, who is a champion of the union perspective, should be able to acknowledge that self interest can and often does intersect with the interest of the kids.

Obviously, not all business is great for students.  Just like not all activists are great for students, not all unions are great for students and so on and so forth.  There is always potential for exploitation.  But from what I’ve seen from Wireless Generation, and what I’ve heard smarter people than I am say, they by and large provide high quality service.  It is good that they are making money for providing a high quality service.  Too many of the vendors who cater to urban school districts only do so because they are bad enough at what they do and can overcharge by enough that it is worth navigating the nonsensical procurement processes that dominate government bureaucracies.

The bottom line for Ms. Strauss is that she believes big business is driving education policy.  Big business is savvy enough to enter emerging markets and with all this still relatively new focus on education and turning around low performing schools a new market has emerged.  It is education policy that is driving big business.  And by bringing a for-profit mentality into the market, new and innovative ideas are being introduced as well.  It has diversified perspectives, thought processes and personalities in a sector that has spent a long time not serving our most vulnerable communities.  This is a good thing on net.  There will definitely be slip ups, examples of profit corrupting a noble mission.  But impure motivations corrupting noble missions has always occurred and will always occur.  It is not a reason to hate all things profitable.  That is a viewpoint of a caricature from an Ayn Rand novel.

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