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The Education of Mike Milken | The Nation

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The Education of Mike Milken

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Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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Arthur Levine of Columbia's Teachers College has spent as much time as anyone talking with Milken and has a strong sense of why Milken casts his net so widely. "We're seeing publishers, television, museums, libraries, universities--all of them are in the knowledge business and what they're all doing right now is beginning to produce the same products.... Suddenly what we have is a brand-new world in which Michael Milken is probably the most visible of all the entrepreneurs. Does one worry? Of course one worries."

Milken is perhaps uniquely equipped to play the game of leveraging assets and promoting synergy. He pushed through the conventional Wall Street firewalls, working not just as a broker on behalf of bond issuers but also as a middleman for the buyers. And he constantly linked his clients, pushing every possible opportunity for one component to ignite income opportunities in another. It's not unlikely that Milken will see synergistic opportunities with many of the corporate titans he helped enrich during the seventies and eighties--people like Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, and companies like MCI, TCI and Time Warner. The conceivable possibilities for incorporating their products (from Sports Illustrated to The Simpsons) into education are endless: Imagine, for instance, a line of "Homer does Homework" products. The trend is already here: Chris Whittle's Channel One introduced advertising into public schools in 1989. Dozens of schools are now allowing for-profit companies access to elementary students for focus groups in return for computers, and the widespread use of Nike and other brand names in math textbook problems has prompted angry parents to lobby for bans.

One good thing that can be said about Milken is that he's not likely to be pushing any philosophical obsession on his students. He has put forth a few modest ideas, including the notion that preschoolers are ready to dip into foreign languages and preliminary algebra; he also envisions using classroom technology to deliver national-standard educational lessons. And he thinks that the sort of incentives that work well in business will produce higher-quality education. But if his Wall Street reign is any guide, the game is not about a particular political ideology but about finding assets that are undervalued, then structuring them in such a way that value is generated and investors make money.

Still, even Milken is not above a little editorial control. Would he allow a Milken School to assess the go-go eighties critically? "Absolutely not," says a former colleague. Such concerns seem borne out in a book produced by a Milken-backed publishing house, Knowledge Exchange. Its Business Encyclopedia approvingly cites Milken's role in the junk-bond market without mentioning the economic and social devastation associated with it. Of the bonds, it declares, "Though considered to be highly controversial, high-yield securities have emerged as an important investment category as well as a critical source of financing for growing companies."

Educators worry that if curriculum and the tools of teaching (let alone schools themselves) are controlled by conglomerates like Milken's, many of the virtues of public education will be lost. Roger Bowen, president of the State University of New York at New Paltz and an advocate for public schools, says that people like Milken "forget that one of the best outcomes of 'traditional' education is improved socialization and civic values. Techno-educators seem altogether indifferent to building a stronger democratic society." And when the emphasis is on selling a certain vision of the future--one that is intimately linked to the prosperity of private firms in the knowledge business--the welfare of students may well get short shrift. Indeed, there are no reliable studies demonstrating that technology can actually improve educational performance in the trenches of America's public schools. "No doubt, some solitary souls and antisocial types thrive using new learning technologies; and there is plenty of evidence that the television generation adores the computer screen," says Bowen. "But the mere conveyance of information, which computers do quite well, is only a small part of what the educational process should be."

The best hope for preventing the debasement of education as just another corporate product may lie in public control over curriculum. "One of the things that may happen is we may see more states dictating curricular content...and demanding accountability standards in these profit-making schools," says Levine. At the moment, very few do. California, with the largest total number of students, doesn't even license K-12 schools, according to Carolyn Pirillo, deputy general counsel for the California Education Department: "We stipulate branches of study [English, history and the like] but I'm sure nobody has tried to enforce [even] this content on private schools, and I'm not sure what would happen if we did." A school could offer health classes that sing the praises of Twinkies, Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs for building strong bodies--with nary a worry.

On one level, it is unsettling even to contemplate that the business of education--from software to SAT prep courses to employee training--may lie in the hands of a man who became infamous by helping financiers take over and gut companies, throwing thousands out of work and producing nothing but payoffs for investors. As James Stewart argued in Den of Thieves, Milken's reign served as a catalyst for extensive layoffs and economic recession. Would he blanch at making "surplus" teachers "redundant"? Or at maximizing profits by underpaying labor? "Education is labor intensive if it is done well," says Bowen. "Simpletons who argue that education can be made 'cost-effective' by relying more on learning technologies are seldom educators themselves. The corporatization of American education results in techno-educators getting the ear of education-bashers who are eager to prove more comes from less." Indeed, two recent studies have documented that for-profit schools in Arizona and Michigan have slashed teacher salaries, special-ed services--and transportation for students, which has increased racial segregation in schools.

The dirty little not-very-secret is that educational establishments, which still shape our society more than any other institutions, are being turned over to those who see life as one giant Risk board. Progressive educators may win the battle to halt the full-scale privatization of our schools; nearly 90 percent of American children are still educated in public schools. But if we lose sight of the war for control over their content, the future may belong not to teachers and students but to the new proprietors of knowledge--corporate executives and investors. Surely, too, judging education based on measurable "improvements," which corporations love to do in flogging their whiter whites and wider seats, has its nefarious side. Will it come down to how schools market themselves rather than how well kids learn and what they learn? Will students even be permitted, for example, to see the negative consequences of unfettered greed? In an era when even our most basic public institutions are being shaped by financial interests, defending these core principles has become an increasingly important struggle.

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