Checker Finn and I used to be best buddies back in the days when I was on the other side (the wrong side) of big education issues. We became friends in the early 1980s. We created something called the Educational Excellence Network, which circulated a monthly newsletter on events and issues back in the pre-Internet days. I was a member of the board of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which was created and chaired by his father and led by Checker. Checker had worked for Lamar Alexander when Lamar was Governor of Tennessee, and he recommended me to Lamar when Lamar became George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. I accepted the job of Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Counselor to the Secretary, the same job Checker had held during the Reagan administration, when Bill Bennett was Secretary of Education. We both served as members of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution. As a member of Checker’s board, I opposed accepting funding from the Gates Foundation, since I thought that as a think tank, we should protect our independence and we had plenty of money. I opposed TBF becoming an authorizer of charters in Ohio, where TBF was theoretically based even though its main office was in DC. I was outvoted on both issues. As a member of the Koret Task Force, I was in regular conversation and discussion with the best conservative thinkers. Over time, however, I lost the conservative faith. I changed my mind, as I described in my book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. 

I became and remain a deeply skeptical critic of all the grand plans to reinvent American education, especially those that emanate from billionaires and from people who are hostile to the very concept of public education.

To my surprise, I read an article recently by Checker that captured my skepticism about the Big Ideas imposed on schools and teachers. This one was called the New American Schools Development Corporation. It was spun off during the brief time that Lamar Alexander was Secretary. It was David Kearns’ pet project. David was a former CEO of Xerox who agreed to serve as Lamar’s Deputy Secretary. He was a wonderful man and I enjoyed getting to know him. He thought like a CEO and he thought that the best way to spur innovation was to hold a contest with a big prize. (Race to the Top did the same thing and flopped.)

Checker relies on the work of a wonderful scholar named Jeff Mirel of the University of Michigan. Jeff, a dear friend of mine, died earlier this year, far too young. He was a strong supporter of public schools and a first-rate historian. I miss him.

As Checker show, the NewAmerican Schools project failed. But the $50 Million that Kearns raised from private sources was eagerly snapped up.

My reaction to Checker’s article was this: Twenty or thirty years from now, someone will write a similar article about charter schools and ask, “How could people have been so dumb as to believe that you could ‘reform’ American education by letting anyone get public money to open any kind of school? Why did they think it was a good idea to let entrepreneurs and for-profit entities open schools? Why did they allow corporate chains to take over community public schools? Why did they allow religious zealots to get public money intended for public schools? They must have lost all common sense or any sense of history!”