Whittle's Schools - 3 R's And Lots of TV

CHRISTOPHER WHITTLE has done the nation a large service, though not entirely the one he intended.

Mr. Whittle is the media entrepreneur best known for Channel One, the cable news show for kids that opened up the American classroom to commercial advertising. Now, with great media flourish, he has announced his intention to launch a chain of for-profit private schools, at an eventual cost of billions of dollars, with the first 200 in operation by 1995.

The proposal is important whether anything comes of it or not. The Bush administration is promoting the voucher system, through which taxpayer dollars would be available to fund private schools like Whittle's. Until now the debate has dwelt largely in the realm of ideological abstraction. Whittle's proposal brings it down to earth, and suggests in concrete ways what happens when people view children and education through the lens of the economic "marketplace," as the voucher lobby does.

In fairness, Whittle has some good ideas. He's talking about a chain of efficient schools that would eliminate bureaucracy and use the best techniques around. Kids would help maintain the schools, as happens in Japan, and would help teach one another. Whittle's schools would accept applicants at random, charging roughly what public schools pay per pupil: now some $5,500 a year. Twenty percent of students would get scholarships.

At first glance, the venture has some of the gut appeal of Ross Perot's presidential campaign: Rout the entrenched interests and bureaucratic sludge. But Mr. Perot isn't proposing to turn the federal government into a profit-making corporation, the way Whittle sees the schools. As Saturday morning TV amply demonstrates, great mischief can arise when adults look at kids as a "market."

Some of the problems come with the territory. In a sprawling corporation with top executives making millions of dollars a year, can Whittle really enlist fourth graders to scrub the toilets? What happens to the spirit of PTA bake sales and community involvement when these are harnessed to the cause of increasing the quarterly dividend?

But the basic problem isn't running schools for profit; it's Whittle's approach. His communications enterprises are built on three strategies. First, a captive audience: he produces special magazines for doctors' waiting rooms and other places people have to wait. Second, he finds realms that haven't been commercialized and puts commercials into them. He launched a series of books filled with full-page ads for Federal Express.

Channel One brought these two strands together. A captive audience, consisting of students. And a vehicle to bring ads (for candy, sneakers, etc.) into a realm that was off-limits before. Then the third strategy kicked into place, with a deal many financially-strapped schools couldn't refuse: free video equipment for every class, provided the kids watched Channel One daily.

Many schools resisted. Now Whittle is starting his own. He is proclaiming these as a venue for Channel One, and possibly other advertising. "They will probably be in our schools," he conceded.

There's a place for ads in classrooms. Kids need to learn the language of media persuasion that engulfs them - the subtle ways in which advertising binds their attention and evokes assent. Channel One doesn't do that. It's another dose of what kids get on commercial TV, five hours a day. "Consume, consume, consume. We teach those lessons well," a high school teacher in suburban Boston lamented recently. Whittle wants to teach it more.

Sure, the ads would help support the school. But they also start to change the school into something it shouldn't be: a place where entrepreneurs deliver impressionable kids to marketeers.

Bad habits rarely start all at once. They come little by little, in the guise of something good. If there are ads on classroom TV, why not in the textbooks? In the high-tech media classrooms that Whittle envisions, the commercials can keep coming all day long.

There's muscle behind this idea. Whittle is a partner of Time-Warner, the media conglomerate. And he's a close friend and former employer of Lamar Alexander, the United States Secretary of Education who is pushing the voucher concept. If nothing else, Whittle is teaching an important lesson: Privatizing a public function doesn't get rid of politics. It simply shifts them to another sphere.

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