“The Only Place Innovation Will Come From”

Yesterday, Bill Gates addressed 4,100 charter school leaders and activists and told them that their movement “is the only place innovation will come from.”

Certainly there are innovative charter schools–and others that deploy traditional methods with such skill and dedication as to achieve results far above the norm (think Ben Chavis’ American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland). But of course charters are not the only source of educational innovation, and, much more importantly, they are unlikely to drive the process of mass replication and scale-up of innovations responsible for the stunning economic progress of the past several hundred years.

Pick any field in which a brilliant innovation has been capitalized on and brought to the masses and you will likely find that it is capitalist–part of the profit-and-loss, free enterprise system.

There are occasional exceptions. The Jesuits introduced performance-based grouping in 1599, promoting students to the next grade whenever they had mastered the material of the current one, and managed to scale-up that policy internationally. But only free markets have created an ever-repeating cycle of innovation, replication, and dissemination that continues decade after decade, seldom pausing or reversing except due to some external calamity.

There are efforts afoot by business and financial leaders to emulate that cycle within the charter school framework. We should wish them well, but it’s a daunting task. As Friedrich Hayek explains in The Fatal Conceit, the web of freedoms, customs, and incentives we call free markets was not designed by earlier generations, but rather evolved inexorably over time. It is not a product of human planning, but of human nature.

Trying to reproduce the innovation, replication, dissemination cycle outside the free market system is like trying to make a wheel more round by increasing or decreasing the value of pi–and it’s just as unnecessary. We already have a system for accomplishing what Gates and the American public desire, why not use it? Why don’t we simply ensure that all children, regardless of family wealth, can afford access to a free education marketplace? The innovation and dissemination process will then take care of itself, as it does in every other field.