Next month, Rupert Murdoch
will make an unusual public appearance in San Francisco, delivering the keynote address at an education
summit hosted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has lately been crisscrossing the country promoting his own version
of education reform!
The high-profile speech to a collection of
conservative ed reformers, state legislators, and educators is just the latest step in Murdoch's quiet march into the business
of education, which has been somewhat eclipsed by the phone-hacking scandal besieging his media empire. (On Tuesday, word
of Murdoch's appearance at Bush's conference came just hours after reports that News Corp. had agreed to pay more than $4 million to the family of a 13-year-old British murder victim, Milly Dowler, whose voicemail was hacked by reporters for Murdoch's News of the World. ) But
Murdoch has made it very clear that he views America's public schools as a potential gold mine.
"In every other part of life, someone who woke
up after a 50-year nap would not recognize the world around him…But not in education," he remarked in May during
a speech at the "e-G8 forum" that preceded the G8 summit in France. "Our schools remain the last holdout from the digital
Last November, News Corp. dropped $360 million to buy Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology company that provides software,
assessment tools, and data services. "When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone
that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching," Murdoch said
at the time.
A few weeks before the deal, News Corp. had
hired one of the nation's most prominent education figures, Joel Klein, away from his job as New York City schools chancellor.
As it happens, Klein was already familiar with Wireless Generation, which began working with the New York City school system
during his tenure.
While Murdoch's arrival to the education business
is being cheered by Jeb Bush and other conservatives, the idea of the parent company of News of the World and
Fox getting into the school biz hasn't gone over well with the education establishment. Murdoch's new venture has stirred
controversy in New York, where this summer the state sought to enter into a $27 million contract with Wireless Generation
to track student performance. Given Klein's hiring, the deal prompted an outcry by teachers' unions and other critics who
saw the public school system becoming just another example of revolving-door politics and crony capitalism. ("They chose us
because we're good," and not due to any connection to Klein, says Wireless Generation's spokeswoman, Joan Lebow.)
In early August, New York teachers' unions
demanded the state rescind its plans to contract with Wireless Generation. "It is especially troubling that Wireless Generation
will be tasked with creating a centralized database for personal student information even as its parent company, News Corporation,
stands accused of engaging in illegal news-gathering tactics," representatives from the state and New York City teachers'
Wireless Generation had caused controversy
even before Murdoch purchased the company. Last year, when New Jersey lost out on millions of federal education funding due
to a screw-up on its grant application, the company landed at the center of the debacle. The state, after all, had reportedly paid the firm $500,000 to ensure
the accuracy of its application, among other things.
News Corp.'s entrance into the education sector
raises broader education policy questions, says University of Arizona education professor Kenneth Goodman. Having a multinational
corporation in charge of assessing kids' reading skills, he notes, shows that "decision making in education is so far removed
from people who have anything to do with kids." And like many educators, he is suspicious that Murdoch will bring his conservative
ideology to his education ventures: "They'd like everything to be privatized."Already, Murdoch's phone-hacking baggage is hurting his bottom line. In late
August, New York rejected its plans to contract with Wireless Generation. The reason, according to the state's comptroller: "vendor responsibility issues involving the parent
company of Wireless Generation."