I'm a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley's new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world's poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I'm ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley's work the moment they heard about it.
Yesterday, the Atlantic's Clive Crook blogged about Tooley's book, calling Tooley "an unsung hero of development policy" for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world's poorest children. And there's the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.
In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley's findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book's major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.
It needs to be.
The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it's always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.
Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley's work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.