Last week, nearly one thousand representatives from business groups, education departments, state legislatures, and free-market think tanks descended on San Francisco's Palace Hotel to strategize a revolution in American education. Focused on state-level politics and driven by marketing buzzwords like "blended learning" and "customized online instruction," it was not the kind of policy powwow that typically draws national media attention.
But education reform is a hot topic these days, and interest in the two-day "Excellence in Action" summit was further heightened by the controversial presence of the summit's keynote speaker: News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose recent foray into for-profit education has focused a spotlight on an increasingly confident and ambitious movement to privatize and digitize American K-through-12.
The debate over the reforms endorsed at "Excellence in Action" has been steadily intensifying. Reform boosters -- a mix of (mostly) Republican state lawmakers, for-profit education companies and their lobbyists, and libertarian ideologues -- maintain that creating a competitive hi-tech education marketplace will make U.S. students more competitive internationally and close the much-lamented achievement gap. Critics suspect an agenda that has more to do with smashing teachers unions and turning tax dollars into profits. Since entering the education reform fray, Murdoch has become a vocal reform booster and unlikely spokesperson for "our children." As he has several times before, he used his time in San Francisco to argue forcefully that what public education needs is a good dose of free-market innovation. "Put simply we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn't work or gets in the way."