News + Ideas

“The Education Reformers of Silicon Valley”

For an individual such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who’s said to be worth $17 billion, an investment of a few million here or there is not a make-or-break proposition.

But Allen’s decision to put $30 million into the for-profit Edison Project, which now has contracts to run 51 public schools and is poised to take on 26 more this fall, may be more than just another high-risk plunge by an audacious financial plunger.

At the very least, it reflects the wide and growing interest of high-tech entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley venture capitalists in education reform, not to mention their brash confidence that, as entrepreneurs well experienced in the management of innovative startups, they can do education better than the tired bureaucrats and school board members who are now entrusted with it.

Their ranks include some of high-tech’s biggest stars and heaviest hitters. Among them, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, who expects to put a voucher initiative on the California ballot in November 2000; venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins; and entrepreneur Reed Hastings, who in 1997 sold his company at the age of thirtysomething for $750 million and announced he would begin ‘‘a new career in school reform.’‘

Hastings, now president of the bipartisan lobbying organization called Technology Network, ran an initiative campaign last year to expand and liberalize the state’s charter school program, thereby forcing the California Teachers Association, which fiercely resisted charter schools, to agree to a bill that accomplished much of what the initiative would have done. Hastings has now teamed up with his former adversaries at the CTA to run an initiative that would permit voters to approve school bonds by a majority vote rather than the two-thirds now required. In any head-to-head battle, Hastings by himself could easily outspend the CTA; so could Draper or Doerr.

But maybe the most intriguing of these new forays into education reform is the NewSchools Fund, which Doerr and a group of fellow ‘‘investors’‘ started a year ago in the belief that ‘‘there are many education entrepreneurs who can create great schools as long as they are free of education bureaucracies.’‘

New Schools, which is itself part of a new ‘‘venture philanthropy’‘ phenomenon, is run by a group of ‘‘partners’‘ who include Doerr and Brook Byers of Kleiner Perkins; Hastings; Marc Andreessen of Netscape; plus a half-dozen other big Valley names. It has raised $10 million and hopes to raise $10 million more to “‘network with education entrepreneurs to turn great ideas into great schools.’‘ Most immediately, that means ‘‘investments’‘ — loans or grants — to two organizations that intend to organize and manage urban charter schools. One is to open in Modesto this fall, another in Stockton.

New Schools has also made a loan of $1 million to Success for All, a well-known program created by Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden of Johns Hopkins University. It already operates in some 1,100 schools. As Doerr describes it, ‘‘For 90 minutes every day they turn the whole school upside-down, grouping kids by ability, not grade, and focus on the most important goal: reading. … I estimate we need it in 10,000 to 15,000 schools.’‘

The loan is to enable Success for All to ‘‘scale up’‘ into an even larger operation. New Schools, in the words of Kim Smith, who runs its day-to-day operations, wants to build the ‘‘field of educational entrepreneurship’‘ by finding ‘‘high-leverage spots’‘ that promise ‘‘scalable and sustainable change.’‘

One of the attractions of Success for All, other than Doerr’s strong belief that it works, is that it is highly structured and prescriptive, and thus lends itself to replication in any school whose teachers and administrators are committed to trying it. It’s not hard to understand why the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are so attracted to education reform. As the products of a high-tech business culture, they believe they understand the importance of high skills and training; as rebels against established corporate practices, they are devoted to an anti-institutional vision of enterprise; as overnight successes, they worship the market.

Given its origins, it shouldn’t be surprising that at the fringes of this reform movement there’s a political and pedagogical innocence that no amount of entrepreneurial savvy may be able to overcome. Draper, who’s convinced that the public schools are widespread failures and that vouchers, where they’re being tried, have proven to be an ‘‘unbelievable’‘ success in raising student achievement, was incensed when Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, in giving his initiative proposal a title and summary for the ballot, called it a voucher rather than a ‘‘scholarship’‘ and said it would provide ‘‘public funding for private and religious schools.’‘

‘‘The funds,’‘ he wrote in an indignant letter to Lockyer, ‘‘are for parents to have an opportunity to choose which school their child goes to. The funds go to PARENTS. The parent may then choose a private or religious school. This is freedom! This is America! Do the right thing!’‘ Draper is now making changes in his proposal; he will resubmit it to Lockyer in the coming weeks.

And yet the real question about this new source of reform is whether it is itself scalable and sustainable in the face of the immense social and political complexities of American education. Doerr, like a number of others, seems eager to educate himself. Hastings enrolled in Stanford’s master’s program in education policy after he sold his company. But the problems of the schools — and the problems of children — may be greater than all the fortunes of Silicon Valley. And in many respects, they may not be solvable in the schools at all.