What does a multibillionaire need to do to get some respect? Oprah Winfrey spends $40 million to open a school in South Africa for underprivileged girls and everyone is on her case.
Why so much money? Why all the luxury? Did the school really need a yoga room? And, of course, how could Oprah turn her back on her own backyard and spend all that money overseas?
I can’t say that Oprah and I have similar visions of how the world works. When I was working on welfare reform 10 years ago I did her show and it was quite clear that Ms. Winfrey and I are on very different wavelengths.
But now I’m going to defend her.
First of all, it’s her money. Unlike many in the entertainment business, Oprah isn’t hanging around Washington lobbying for you and me to pay for her pet programs. She isn’t even doing Oprah-thons asking us to send in checks.
Oprah made her few billion on her own and she runs her own philanthropy program. It’s her money, and it’s her business how she chooses to give it away.
It’s also eminently clear, as her defenders already have pointed out, that Oprah has given tons of money away in her own backyard.
And, frankly, it’s hard to question the fundamental instincts of a self-made billionaire when it comes to investment decisions.
“I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going,” she says in a Newsweek story about her new school. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they say an iPod or some sneakers.”
In an interview in USA Today, Winfrey says when she has tried to help kids in this country, “I have failed.”
This is not to say that Oprah has a clue about what will work to help these kids. But she sure has a feel for what doesn’t. And that is simply going into America’s inner cities and giving out money.
Are you paying attention Nancy Pelosi? Barack Obama? Black leaders around the country who relentlessly defend a failing status quo despite reams of evidence that we need to do something different?
If we’re really looking to be critical about how money is spent, how about a little more attention to those who spend other people’s money rather than on those who spend their own.
Yes, of course, I’m talking about the government and those dear politicians who look out so carefully for our welfare.
Who knows how Oprah’s school in South Africa will fare?
But could she possibly waste any more money on education than our own government does?
How about our Department of Education, with a budget of $90 billion this year? DOE got started in 1979, compliments of President Carter, with a budget of $14 billion. Anybody out there think our kids are doing six times better on tests?
Despite appropriations for elementary and secondary education that are, in real dollars, more than 50 percent higher today than in 1980, reading scores for 9-year-old kids are virtually unchanged.
Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, and author of the highly acclaimed book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” makes the point that real change and improvement come from “disruptive technology rather than improvements on the existing system.”
That is, when things aren’t working well, you’ve got to look for fundamentally different approaches to the problem at hand.
This is exactly what the political establishment and the teachers’ unions fight to prevent in education. It’s because their goal is not to deliver the best possible product to their customers, the kids, but protection of their own interests. Innovators whose goal is the best possible product will try anything to achieve that end, that goal, that very best result.
Our education establishment has little interest in anything other than asking for more money to do more of the same. They may pay lip service to improvement. But, as we know, actions are the measure, not words. When those in control refuse to be open to all options to strive for the best, it’s clear that the best is not the goal.
Vouchers and school choice are the disruptive technology that we need in education. Oprah picked up her marbles and left when she was unhappy. Why shouldn’t kids and parents be able to do the same thing?
(Star Parker is president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education () and author of “White Ghetto: How Middle Class America Reflects Inner City Decay”)