Christopher Whittle

Our Schools: The Public Interest and Private Enterprise

VTR Date: March 20, 1992

Guest: Whittle, Christopher


Host: Richard Heffner
Guest: Christopher Whittle
Title: Our Schools: The Public Interest and Private Enterprise
VTR: 3/20/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … and if my guest today isn’t just about the most controversial person ever to grace this program throughout all of its broadcast years since 1956, then I just don’t know who else could possibly lay claim to that distinction.
Chris Whittle is the peripatetic head of Whittle Communications whose sheer innovativeness, aggressiveness and business acumen, pure gall and real brilliance could now conceivably combine to parlay him into an enormously achieving educational pioneer.
Up to now, of course, our schools have largely been immune to the importunings and the seductions of the marketplace. To improve their lot, however, and who could picture America’s schools worse off than they are now — Mr. Whittle’s Channel One has already brought the claimed (but also disputed) benefits of television with attendant commercials into classrooms around the country. And now, with his Edison Project, he has set about to make our schools instruments of public progress through private enterprise. Adam Smith, rather than John Dewey, may become their patron saint … and, perhaps, Mr. Whittle, their prophet.
Yet one does detect some ambivalence here. Even before Channel One, his television news-plus-commercials began in our schools, Mr. Whittle wrote, in a New York Times OpEd piece, “Doubtless, the merging of business interests with public education raises questions. Purists argue there is no place for such activity, even for enlightened examples. They call it greed, exploitation or, in one case, ‘a pact with the devil.’ Well, it’s easy to hurl these charges, but doing so does not answer the tough question: Where will schools get the necessary funds to educate students? My answer”, he writes, “is the education-business partnerships could be a significant source”.
Yet it almost sounds as if, when push comes to shove, my guest himself would prefer the “purist”, old-fashioned way of supporting our schools: publicly, not privately. And I want to begin by asking Mr. Whittle whether that’s totally unfair an interpretation?
Whittle: No. If push comes to shove I think it might be a good idea for, for schools in America to be completely funded by public funds. What I don’t think would be a good idea is that we have only public schools.
Heffner: Why?
Whittle: Or that we have only one variety of schools.
Heffner: Why does that surface?
Whittle: I’m not sure that we get the diversity that we need in schools. I’m not sure that we get the innovation that we need in schools when we have only one variety of them. And by having many different entries into that world, I think we will get a richer mix. I think we’ll get a lot of back and forth between different kinds of systems. And I do believe that there’s a value in a competitive marketplace, and, and if we only have one kind, we’re not going to have that.
Heffner: Have you any concerns about “the mix” as you call it, including commercials in schools?
Whittle: You mean television commercials?
Heffner: Television commercials …
Whittle: Ahhh …
Heffner: … as they are in your … in your program.
Whittle: As, as you know, we didn’t introduce advertising to schools. There’s advertising in newspapers in schools and in magazines in schools throughout the libraries, and in many television programs that already find their way there. I think that commercials can be used for a public good … meaning I think they can provide things of value. I think they can be abused in a variety of different ways, and I think, like many things, they can be done well and done poorly.
Heffner: Well, you say “done well and done poorly”, and last night I, I had the opportunity of looking at some of the programs that you … some of the, the commercials that fit into the news programs that Channel One consists of, and I think they’re brilliantly produced, but they do contain, not just advertisements … when you say you haven’t begun the business of advertising in schools, you mentioned school papers, etc …. But this is in the classroom, this is the same kind of commercialism that one sees on commercial television in our schools … have you no concern about that at all?
Whittle: Yes, I have concern and that’s one of the reasons we have a lot of restrictions. Example, we restrict far more categories of commercial in the kind of television that we provide to schools than typical networks do. We have far less advertising, meaning we have two minutes a day as opposed to a 24 hour network that has six hours of commercials a day. So I think there are limits both in type .. , example, we don’t take religious advertising, we don’t take political advertising, we don’t take, obviously alcohol or cigarettes … so we are restrictive in that way, and we’re restrictive in amount. And … but I think that when you focus only on commercials, that we leave out what they are supposed to be doing, and that is that they are bringing news and they are bringing technology into America’s classrooms. That that’s really what they are funding. And when you look at what we do, a very small percentage of it is actually commercials. The remainder is news and technology. And one of the things we have to ask ourselves … would we rather have no news in America’s schools, and I don’t think that’s a good choice.
Heffner: Look, I don’t want to focus so totally on the business of the commercials that we don’t deal with the questions that you raise. You talk about technology in the school, and I gather you see this as a device for bringing technology and all that it means today and in the future into the schools. Why so?
Whittle: Well, first of all, I, I think we have a great national treasure in, in our communications industry that, that is tragically left out of our schools. One, one of our great industries, one of the only industries we can export in America is our communications industry. And yet we don’t bring it into the service of education. Some examples .. , every high school at the high school level in, in Britain has a television set. In Japan they make television sets in class. In America three years ago, one in 10 high school classrooms even had access to a television set. I mean one in 10 classrooms had their own television set. And those were on carts that you rolled around in hallways. That’s a disgrace in American education. And obviously the reason is lack of funds. But, if you don’t have the technology you then can’t bring the programming, any kind of programming, whether that’s PBS or a newscast with commercials.
Heffner: Okay, let’s deal with England. You say that in England much more frequently you will find technology. In the schools. Fair enough. Accompanied by – commercials?
Whittle: I don’t believe so. I think the television system in Britain is primarily government.
Heffner: Then could we not, can this great nation not afford to do what you think needs to be done to harness technology for education?
Whittle: This country has been trying to do that, meaning there have been various and sundry bills proposed about bringing technology and bringing programming into America’s schools. And they just haven’t happened. Meaning it just didn’t occur. One in a hundred schools in America, at the high school level, had a satellite dish three years ago. Today 40 times that because of Channel One does. So within three years we moved it from 1 % to 40%. And that’s the impact of what the private sector can do when it gets mobilized. And for whatever reasons, and I don’t know that I know them all, it hasn’t happened through the public sector.
Heffner: You mean we have to harness the private sector and have to pay the, the price that the private sector demands? We have to bring commercials into our schools before we can enjoy technology?
Whittle: I don’t think we have to do that. Now, first of all every school can choose whatever they want to do.
Heffner: You mean to take Channel One or not to take it.
Whittle: Absolutely. Meaning they, they can choose to divert funds out of their budgets to technology and programming or they can choose to take them from us for free. And that is their choice. What has happened is they have chosen again and again not to find those funds in their current budgets, and, by the way, they have chosen in great numbers to take what we’re offering.
Heffner: Let me ask you a question …
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: … just between the two of us. In making that choice …
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: … do you think they’re paying any price at all? Any significant price in terms of American education?
Whittle: No, I don’t. And, and the reason is … I think for us, and I’ll say it the way a Principal said it in Cincinnati one day, when we were in his school. He said, “We, we have much more important issues in this schools such as AIDS, and teenage pregnancy and enormous ignorance and drop-outs than a commercial”. And he said, “A commercial is not very high on my list of issues, and if it helps me deal with those than I’m going to do that”. And I think his decision was this is a good trade-off. It is a trade-off. And ideally, the technology, the programming, the news everything would be there without them, but if I have to choose of no news at all … I’ll take it this way.
Heffner: You know it’s interesting. Again going back to my absorption, total absorption last night with the samples from, from Channel One. What struck me, despite what that Principal said was the fact, and you talk about the drug problem and he, he has other things on his mind, was the speed and I’m using that word purposefully …
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: … was the succession of images, was the nature of the commercial appeal which some people feel is very basic to the surfacing of the drug problem in our country and to many other problems, the kind of ways we choose to live connected to the commercialization of America. Now, before, when you heard me fall all over myself in trying to start this program you, you doubted that you could possibly be the, the most controversial person on this program over these years, and yet, to me, you are because what you are saying, it seems to me, that we’re going to commercialize, we’re going to take the successes of the marketplace and we’re going to say, “look, schools were no place for them in the past, but we can’t solve our financial problems without commercializing, so we’ll do it. We have more important things to think about”. Boy, that makes me feel you’re very, very controversial.
Whittle: First of all I think that may be one of the things I’m saying. But I don’t think that’s all that I’m saying. And to give you an example, in November we wired a school in Moscow, and we asked Tom Brokaw to moderate a discussion between a student body in Moscow and a student body in Centerville, Ohio that was a live discussion between those two schools, and then we called the, at that point, 9,000 schools that are part of Channel One and we said, “Would you air this. Would you take an hour out of your day, and air this as part of your school day?” And 7,000 of the 9,000 said, “Yeah, we think our students tuning live into a conversation between students in Moscow and students in Centerville, Ohio is an educational experience that’s worthwhile”. None of that would have been possible, not remotely possible without the system that this has designed …
Heffner: ‘Cause that …
Whittle: And I think that …, I think that is just an example of what is to come, in many different ways. And by the way, we’re not going to be the only provider. The schools are now taking this technology pipeline and using it in all sorts of different ways that they couldn’t do before. And, and we’re just one piece of this puzzle, but we did kind of lay the pipe.
Heffner: I saw that program last night … that was one of the cassettes your office had sent me, and it is fascinating. There was no question about that. But the values of the marketplace have to stick to, they’re glued to the matter of commercials, aren’t they? And …
Whittle: It is …, it is a decision that everyone’s going to have to make. And, and if you were to ask me what that decision is going to be, I think 90% of America’s schools, within three years are going to say … right, right now 40% have said that, and within three years I think 90% are going to say, “This makes sense, and this is a way to bring the world straight into our classrooms. It’s a way to excite our kids about different topics that we can then work with as part of the rest of the school day”.
Heffner: But there are two parts to it. One is, Whittle and his news programs …
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: … and Channel One …
Whittle: Right.
Heffner: … pure news. The other question is the price that they pay.
Whittle: And the price that they pay is I take two minutes of their day for commercials, that’s right. But, by the way, that’s the same price that they pay for their scoreboards, it’s the same price that they pay for their newspapers and magazines. It’s the same price that they pay for a lot of the material that is currently used in …
Heffner: But …
Whittle: … America’s schools …
Heffner: … but you and I are going to agree, I’m sure upon the enormous difference in impact upon bringing … or bringing something right into the classroom, and
Whittle: But a lot …
Heffner: … having students watch.
Whittle: … a lot of those things are in the classroom.
Heffner: but …
Whittle: I mean newspaper and education programs are in classrooms. And another thing I would mention is I am sure that a lot of people would say, “We think certain programs from even primetime make sense to bring into the classroom, if, if they’re educational”. You got to decide, “is it educational or is it not”?
Heffner: Well, now, the, the Edison Project in which you’re saying that you are going to … let me see if I can find this, this statement … where you say you’re going to bring into, what, a thousand, thousand schools … you’re going to create a thousand private enterprise schools.
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: How is your education … again now in the commercial area because it is going to be a commercial private enterprise school. How is your education going to differ from public education?
Whittle: You’re using the word “commercially” different in this …
Heffner: I’m using it …
Whittle: Yes.
Heffner: … for profit, is that fair?
Whittle: Yes, yes. That’s correct.
Heffner: Okay.
Whittle: We don’t know. And one of the most important things about this project is that we are not starting with the answers. And, and we think more often than not reformers of the system that we know today in the past have started with a set of answers. We are starting with a set of questions. And, and very fundamental questions about … that a lot of people go, “Well, these are unanswerable”, but we go, “But they have to be asked” and a sincere attempt needs to be made to answer them. And our plan is … is to start with some fundamental questions. Example, “what is an education today?”. And when was that question last asked by the current system. And when was it last answered. And in many ways I would argue, “In the 16th century”, in, in some basic ways. And I think we’ve got to ask those questions and build a system around those answers. So I think, I think we’re going to be so radically different than any … if we succeed you will not recognize this as a school. And it isn’t going to be like you and I attended when we were there.
Heffner: Well, let me ask this. I, I know from the press that you’re pouring millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars and I could go on and on because that’s the way it strikes me into this effort to develop the, the Edison Project. You must have an idea of pay-out finally or pay-off finally, and you must have some idea, not only of what the dollars and cents pay-off will be, but of what the educational pay-off will be. You don’t invest … Chris Whittle is too doggone good a businessman to invest his own, or other people’s monies into something that he doesn’t have a fairly good idea of about the pay-off.
Whittle: I have … one of my skills is I have a certain intuitive sense of when things should work out. And, you’re absolutely correct, we would not pour the kind of research and development funds that we are into this …
Heffner: How much, by the way?
Whittle: $60 million dollars in, in think money. Meaning that doesn’t build a school, that doesn’t do a text book, it doesn’t produce a program … that is design funds.
Heffner: Think of all the people who are watching now and given the, the nature of the people who watch a program like this, who are going to write you and say, “I want to think with you”.
Whittle: Thousands have. Seriously. And, and we spent the last seven months talking with thousands of people and we just selected seven, if you will, scientists, that are, are the Research and Development Design Team, that are going to be designing the system. It is an enormously exciting endeavor. There’s nothing like it in my knowledge that’s ever been tried like this. It is a “take it down below grade level, re-think this in fundamental ways” and, do I know what that outcome is going to be? No. Do I have a sense of what it could be? Yeah. I have some picture. Do I have possible economic impacts? Yes.
Heffner: Do you want to share them with us today?
Whittle: Sure, I mean, I’ll give you an example. What does, what does education cost us as a country? K through 12 education in America … and by the way, this is radically understated because public school systems understate their costs, they don’t overstate their costs, but if you look at K through 12 education in the US on the public side, it’s roughly $250 billion dollars a year is what we spend on our current educational system. Not including day-care and not including colleges. You look at that and you say, “Well, well, let’s say we build a national New Age school system that had 1 % of America’s students … you have a $2.5 billion enterprise, if you have a 1% of America’s students”. So you can, you can run different models however you want to look at it. It, it is a very large world.
Heffner: And the money will come from where?
Whittle: The money in the early stages will come direct ‘from parents. And essentially parents are going to have to make a decision whether they want to pay twice. Because obviously they pay tax dollars for public education and then they will have to decide “do we want to pay again to send students to this particular school?”. That’s true with 80% of the kids who will go there. 20% of the kids will be on scholarships, which basically has to come out of the 80%’s pocket.
Heffner: It’s interesting that you have those percentages because the percentages are different, I think, from many, many, many private institutions. Won’t this, therefore, make or give your Edison Project Schools a kind of elitist, wealthy person’s children …
Whittle: No, in fact … let me talk a little bit about why I’m doing this. Is that …
Heffner: Please.
Whittle: … that will come back around ….
Heffner: Please.
Whittle: … to this, this question. Some people have interpreted this effort as a privatization move. I am not a privatization freak, I could care less about privatizing American education, that is not why I’m doing this. Over the last three years to achieve Channel One, our company had to attend 30,000 school board meetings across the United States. We know what that agenda is, and, and we learned a lot about schools. And, and two things that we learned, one is no news to anyone is there are big problems out there. And the second thing we learned that in fact was more depressing than that was we became very concerned about whether the current reform efforts were actually going to work. And many intelligent observers, if you take them behind closed doors, and say, “what do you think?”, will tell you that they’re very skeptical about whether we’re going to be able to work our way out of the problem that we currently have in education. So I began thinking about is there a different way to do this? And, and I came up with the idea of what if we had a Manhattan Project, if you will, of education, where we were going to be as radical in our design of an education model as the scientists in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, not far from where I live, were about explosives, if they were going to take it from TNT to a nuclear model. There were only two ways I could think that could happen. One is if the Federal government took it on, which we advocated. And second, if it was done with a private sector. And we said, we’re going to try it on the private sector. And what this is all about is not to privatize and is particularly not to design an elitist model. We will accomplish nothing here if we create an elitist model. We will be harmful if we create an elitist model.
Heffner: You say that’s not your objective.
Whittle: It isn’t our objective.
Heffner: But aren’t you privatizing on the way to your objective?
Whittle: No, no. I’m going to continue here. The critical thing in not doing an elitist model is a certain set of design criteria. An elitist model would do some of these things … an elitist model would say, “We’re not going to take problem kids, because they just cause us problems”. An elitist model would say, “We’re going to charge 9, 10, 12 thousand dollars per child. We, we don’t care”. An elitist model would have absolutely strict entrance requirements … saying that unruly kids aren’t going to be part of it, whatever. We’re not doing any of that. We are saying … we’re going to work for the same money that a public school has, $5,300 per child, we’re not going to have entrance requirements, anyone that comes and says, “I want to be here in this school”, random selection, and knowing that one of the entrance requirements is whether you can pay, we’re going to say, “Alright, 20% of our kids are on scholarship”, but it’s different. In an inner city campus of ours 95% of the kids are going to be on scholarship. In a Westchester campus, 1 % are going to be on scholarship, and we’re literally going to build in a transfer of wealth between those two systems. And so we will never perfectly replicate the problems that a public school has to deal with, but we are sincerely trying. And, and we are going about this and go, “let’s take their problems and their resources and see if we can come up with a different way to do this”.
Heffner: What support are you getting from the educational establishment?
Whittle: Remarkable amounts. (Laughter)
Heffner: That’s a remarkable answer.
Whittle: I have never thought that the problems of our school systems are with the people that go to work in the trenches of education every day. Every school I visit I come out inspired by the fact that the people even show up under, under what they have to deal with. I have always thought that the problem is the system that we sit on top of those people. That is the creaking old bureaucracy. And, and I don’t know how they get anything done in the environment. The people out there, principals and teachers that run America’s schools are remarkably supportive of this because they, they understand that if we can find a breakthrough it’s going to ripple into their world as well.
Heffner: To what degree, and we have a minute left perhaps … to what degree do your successes in Channel One feed into the Edison Project? Intellectually.
Whittle: Our successes do in two ways. First of all, we would have never thought of this without Channel One. Channel One sparked our interest in this. Secondly, Channel One in many ways is funding this. Meaning without the successes of Channel One, which it’s an enormous success, I’m not sure we could do this. And three, Channel One has provided us with immense credibility within that educational world because they know, despite very tough going in, in the early days of Channel One and in fact, we did pull it off and, and they’re not counting us out so quickly this time.
Heffner: If you come back here 36 years from now, when we’ve doubled our age, and … of the program … and if you’re no longer the most controversial guest I’ve ever had, it will be a very interesting thing. Obviously, one wishes you luck and thanks you for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
Whittle: Pleasure being here.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, about today’s guest, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation: The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.