WASHINGTON—Listen to executives from Silicon Valley talk about what they want from Washington, and education reform usually ranks near the top of their policy wish list.
TechNet, an industry advocacy group, counts education reform as a top priority, as does the Information Technology Industry Council and the Semiconductor Industry Association. Intel CEO Craig Barrett has argued fiercely for improved math and science education.
Then why are the tech industry's proposals to repair the admittedly broken system of public education in the United States so modest?
The latest exercise in incrementalism came last week, at—of all places—a Department of Homeland Security meeting here, at a presidential advisory committee meeting. Speakers included luminaries such as Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, Akamai CEO George Conrades and outgoing DHS Undersecretary Frank Libutti.
Al Berkeley III, former president of Nasdaq and current chairman of a software development firm, warned of the importance of providing "incentives to attract students into technical fields" and said he wanted better "cybersecurity curricula" for universities.
"We are concentrating on identifying successful programs" such as a testing Web site created by the Council on Competitiveness, Berkeley said. "We have good conversations going with the Department of Education."
Thomas Noonan, chairman of Internet Security Systems, suggested that his fellow committee members seek advice from former astronaut Sally Ride, who became a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego. "She may be a tremendous resource for us," Noonan said. Other proposals circulated in such circles usually call for more testing and more government spending.
Huh? Repairing the states' woeful educational system will take more than a Web site, a phone call to a former astronaut or "conversations" with midlevel government bureaucrats. If more spending did the trick, D.C. (with the highest per-pupil spending) would top the charts instead of finishing all the way down at the bottom.
Unfortunately, the tech industry isn't willing to talk—at least in public—about more aggressive measures that might be able to fix the problem.
By now, the bleak statistics should be well-known: In 2002, China and India graduated five times the number of engineers did the United States, which ranks a dismal 19th in eighth-grade math skills. Japan, South Korea, Norway and the Czech Republic boast far higher high-school graduation rates.
But modest, incremental measures have scant chance of working. As Bruce Mehlman, a former Bush administration official who's now the head of a tech trade association, acknowledged in an interview last year, education reform "has been a refrain of the business community and of leaders in both parties for the last 20 years, if not 50 years."
There's a word that describes policies followed for half a century without results: failures. If tech CEOs actually wanted to get something done, they might consider rallying around structural changes. Some suggestions:
Give education tax credits that let parents pay for private-school tuition with money they'd otherwise cough up in taxes. The concept is less troublesome than school vouchers, would spur competition in schools, and Arizona's experience suggests that it isn't as expensive as it sounds. Didn't many of these same tech firms claim during the Microsoft antitrust saga that competition was the lifeblood of America?
Curb the influence of teachers' unions, which arguably wield more power than any other single interest group in America. These unions have a strong incentive to block changes that permit poorly performing teachers to be fired more readily or increase competition between government and private schools. If tax credits don't happen, then any real education reform probably means confronting unions through laws that link teachers' pay to performance and make it easier to get rid of poor performers.
Reduce funding to state-run universities. State universities' below-cost tuition is helping to force some private schools out of business. Thanks to subsidized government schools, more than 300 U.S. private colleges closed their doors between 1970 and 1993. Giving tuition grants directly to students should help create a more level playing field and increase competition and education quality.
It's true that these proposals risk offending powerful political interests including, for starters, state university employees, teachers' unions and Democratic politicians who rely on these groups for votes and money.
But if the tech industry is truly serious about a well-educated work force, those political risks might be worth taking. This is, after all, a big-thinking industry that makes billion-dollar gambles almost every day, as when Intel decides to build a new chip fabrication facility or Apple Computer announces a no-screen iPod and yet another cubelike computer.
The risks of continued incrementalism in the form of Web sites, phone calls to astronauts and meetings with bureaucrats might be even more costly: a steady decline in the education of generations of Americans over another 50-year stretch.