Agree­ing with Oprah, for a change

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

What does a multi­bil­lion­aire need to do to get some re­spect? Oprah Win­frey spends $40 mil­lion to open a school in South Africa for un­der­priv­i­leged girls and ev­ery­one is on her case.

Why so much money? Why all the lux­ury? Did the school re­ally need a yoga room? And, of course, how could Oprah turn her back on her own back­yard and spend all that money over­seas?

I can’t say that Oprah and I have sim­i­lar vi­sions of how the world works. When I was work­ing on wel­fare re­form 10 years ago I did her show and it was quite clear that Ms. Win­frey and I are on very dif­fer­ent wave­lengths.

But now I’m go­ing to de­fend her. First of all, it’s her money. Un­like many in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness, Oprah isn’t hang­ing around Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing for you and me to pay for her pet pro­grams. She isn’t even do­ing Oprah-thons ask­ing us to send in checks.

Oprah made her few bil­lion on her own and she runs her own phi­lan­thropy pro­gram. It’s her money, and it’s her busi­ness how she chooses to give it away. It’s also em­i­nently clear, as her de­fend­ers al­ready have noted, that Oprah has given tons of money away in her own back­yard.

And, frankly, it’s hard to ques­tion the fun­da­men­tal in­stincts of a self-made bil­lion­aire when it comes to in­vest­ment de­ci­sions.

“I be­came so frus­trated with visit­ing in­ner-city schools that I just stopped go­ing,” she says in a Newsweek story about her new school. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they say an iPod or some sneak­ers.” In an in­ter­view in USA To­day, Miss Win­frey says when she has tried to help kids in this coun­try, “I have failed.”

This is not to say Oprah has a clue what will work to help th­ese kids. But she sure has a feel for what doesn’t. And that is sim­ply go­ing into Amer­ica’s in­ner cities and giv­ing out money.

Are you pay­ing at­ten­tion Nancy Pelosi? Barack Obama? Black lead­ers around the coun­try who re­lent­lessly de­fend a fail­ing sta­tus quo de­spite reams of ev­i­dence that we need to do some­thing dif­fer­ent?

If we’re re­ally look­ing to be crit­i­cal about how money is spent, how about a lit­tle more at­ten­tion to those who spend other peo­ple’s money rather than on those who spend their own. Yes, of course, I’m talk­ing about the gov­ern­ment and those dear politi­cians who look out so care­fully for our wel­fare.

Who knows how Oprah’s school in South Africa will fare? But could she pos­si­bly waste any more money on ed­u­ca­tion than our gov­ern­ment does?

How about our Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment, with a bud­get of $90 bil­lion this year? The de­part­ment got started in 1979, com­pli­ments of Pres­i­dent Carter, with a bud­get of $14 bil­lion. Any­body out there think our kids are do­ing 6 times bet­ter on tests?

De­spite ap­pro­pri­a­tions for el­e­men­tary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion that are, in real dol­lars, more than 50 per­cent higher to­day than in 1980, read­ing scores for 9-year-old kids are vir­tu­ally un­changed.

Clay­ton Christensen of Har­vard Busi­ness School, au­thor of the highly ac­claimed, “The In­no­va­tor’s Dilemma,” makes the point that real change and im­prove­ment come from “dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy rather than im­prove­ments on the ex­ist­ing sys­tem.” That is, when things aren’t work­ing well, you have to look for fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the prob­lem at hand.

This is ex­actly what the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment and the teach­ers’ unions fight to pre­vent in ed­u­ca­tion. Their goal is not to de­liver the best pos­si­ble prod­uct to their cus­tomers, the kids, but pro­tec­tion of their own in­ter­ests. In­no­va­tors whose goal is the best pos­si­ble prod­uct will try any­thing to achieve that end, that goal, that very best re­sult.

Our ed­u­ca­tion es­tab­lish­ment has lit­tle in­ter­est in any­thing other than ask­ing for more money to do more of the same. They may pay lip ser­vice to im­prove­ment. But, as we know, ac­tions are the mea­sure, not words. When those in con­trol refuse to be open to all op­tions to strive for the best, it’s clear that the best is not the goal.

Vouch­ers and school choice are the dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy that we need in ed­u­ca­tion. Oprah picked up her mar­bles and left when she was un­happy. Why shouldn’t kids and par­ents be able to do the same thing?

Star Parker is pres­i­dent of CURE, Coali­tion on Ur­ban Re­newal and Ed­u­ca­tion and au­thor of “White Ghetto: How Mid­dle Class Amer­ica Re­flects In­ner City De­cay.” Dis­trib­uted by Scripps Howard News Ser­vice.

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