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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Grassroots Activist? High-tech venture capitalist Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson is determined to get a voucher initiative for California's schools on the November ballot.

Geeks Bearing Gifts

Venture capital's golden boy and a pragmatic software tycoon want to reform the state's schools. Should we let them?

By Traci Hukill

TIM DRAPER MAKES A GOOD CASE for the validity of natural selection. He's tall. He's handsome. He has a big, white smile. If he didn't run one of the hottest venture-capital firms in Silicon Valley, he might be smirking at us in boxer shorts from the pages of Vogue instead of posing for idolatrous spreads in Red Herring.

Such blessings tend to confer on the blessed a certain self-assurance--in Draper's case, enough to try to mold education the way he molded his business.

"I rely on a very educated population for my business to continue," he says. "We run on intellectual property. Last year, 60 percent of start-up venture capital flowed to immigrants."

Having founded Draper Fisher Jur-vetson in 1985 and made it the last word in start-up funding, Draper is now working on his political legacy. In 1998, he launched Local Choice 2000, a campaign to introduce a voucher program to California. The controversial program, which is being used in Milwaukee, takes money from public school funds and gives it directly to parents so they can spend it on tuition for private education.

School-reform cognoscenti know vouchers as an extreme measure. But then, some argue, California has an extreme problem. In the past five years, education has vaulted to the top of the list of things that worry Californians. In spite of its wealth, the state ranks a dismal 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending. Its teacher-to-pupil ratios are well below average. Test scores are consistently troubling. A growing mood of crisis has convinced people that the state's school system is failing and needs a major overhaul.

Thanks to the initiative process, Draper's proposed voucher program could become California law by the end of this year. If it does, it will be an education policy law that was lobbied and substantially funded by a wealthy businessman who describes his qualifications like this: "I'm a father and a citizen. I think that makes me qualified. I'm putting a lot of money and effort and time into making sure the best thing happens for schools."

Unlike most of the state's fathers and citizens, Draper can afford to spend $200,000 getting his initiative on the November ballot. He expects to spend more before he's done.

Reed Hastings is another multimillionaire with an itch to shake up public education. Hastings, a software innovator, former president of computer-industry lobby group TechNet and now chief executive officer of a dotcom, is a prominent advocate for school reform and a champion of Proposition 26. This two-pronged initiative would make it easier for school districts to raise money with bonds. It would also require school districts to provide facilities to charter schools, which happen to be Hastings's pet reform project.

Unlike vouchers, charter schools, which run on state funds and honor collective bargaining, have the support of the teachers' union. Proposition 26 will most likely pass on March 7 and, if it does, it will cement Hastings's position as an education policy power broker.

Because of the desperate state of California education, few people are willing to criticize successful entrepreneurs, even when their qualifications to shape education policy are mysterious. Maureen Davidson, spokeswoman for San Jose Unified School District, says schools are already under attack for being behind the times. They don't want to look stodgy by questioning innovators.

But there are reasons to wonder if the business mentality belongs in education.

"These are high-tech people, and their response to problems is to find a solution quick," points out San Jose State University political scientist Terry Christensen. "But that's not always the way you solve social problems. There is no quick fix to our education problems."

So the question remains: Who are the businessmen advocating these reforms, and are they qualified to tell California how to educate its kids?

Vouching for Change

THERE'S AN EDGE to Tim Draper. You can see in his face the ghost of worry, even doubt. Sometimes a scrim of impatience overlays his otherwise smooth demeanor. To him, education reform is the fight against an oppressive system. He speaks with disgust of rich union bosses, political payoffs and cheated Little People.

"The public school system is a monopoly," he says. "It's a system that rewards failure. A poor parent in Compton can't pull their kid out of public school. There is no choice. They can't get out of a failed system that's going to get worse. I can't imagine the fury burning in Compton's parents."

The 41-year-old Draper's four kids are now in private school, but that wasn't always so. After earning an MBA at Harvard University, Draper returned to the Peninsula, where he grew up, hoping to send his kids to the same public schools he attended as a kid. But the schools seemed impoverished. His old classrooms, once festooned with bright posters and cut-outs, were now disturbingly bare. It worried him.

Draper and his wife, Melissa, had not yet put their kids in private schools when Draper's daughter, then in third grade, asked her dad what he did all day. Instead of just telling her, Draper decided to show her and her classmates, and BizWorld was born.

BizWorld is a free, four-day curriculum package that shows kids how to run a business by letting them design, make and sell friendship bracelets. Now in its eighth year, the nonprofit is still going strong, with volunteers teaching the program in 150 schools across the country.

Draper was giving a BizWorld presentation in an Atherton school in 1997 when Gayle Wilson, wife of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, stopped in. Impressed by what she saw, she told her husband about it. The following April, Wilson appointed Draper to the California Board of Education.

It turned out to be a bad mix. Draper was used to the heady business of venture capital, with its emphasis on risk-taking and luck--the tools of the rugged American individualist. Those are not the tools of the bureaucrat. The inefficiency of the process galled him. The worst came near the end of his stint on the board.

"I was the biggest supporter of charter schools until the second-to-last meeting of the Department of Education," he says. "I got this thing that really tweaked me: 'Rules for Charter Schools.' And little by little, what I saw happening is that they're going to chip away at charter schools so they look just like public schools."

Draper launched his voucher campaign soon after.

He remains undeterred by the fact that a 1993 voucher initiative flopped in California when it met a $13 million teachers' union war chest. Nor is he concerned that in the past several years vouchers have been defeated or legally challenged in all eight states in which they've been introduced.

"As soon as one wins--and California is a big one--the rest of the states will see," he says. "The states need this badly."

One of the sticking points of vouchers has been the idea of using public funds to pay for private religious education. Draper insists there's no impropriety. "They can go to any kind of religious school they want," he says. "It's not giving money to a particular religion."

Draper rolls his eyes when asked if he plans to go into politics. "No," he smiles, shaking his head. He thinks a little while and decides that his parents--his mom worked for Peace Corps and his dad directed the United Nations Development Program--instilled a patriotic service ethic in him.

"I don't know," he says finally. "I'm always looking at the way the world can be improved. It isn't money. I've always felt that this was a free country, and I want to make sure my kids can feel that way too.

"I'm a freedom fighter."

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Big Man on Campus: Software millionaire Reed Hastings has been the financier and champion of Proposition 26, an initiative on Tuesday's ballot that empowers charter schools.

Charter Membership

REED HASTINGS practices little-d democracy every day he goes to work. Like all the other employees at NetFlix.com, where he's chief executive officer, he sits in a gray cubicle. His is Spartan, with just a workstation, a laptop and some business cards. The only decoration in sight is a puffy pink feather boa someone draped over the crux of the four cubicles.

With a glance at his watch, the 39-year-old sits down at a cluttered conference-room table and starts talking. Reed Hastings is one of the most visible advocates of charter schools in the state and is fast becoming a powerful player in education politics. His fundraising work on Proposition 26 brought together such diverse forces of nature as the California Teachers Union and voucher proponent John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam.

Hastings has forged such unlikely alliances by exercising a cool pragmatism. That's what drives him. He figures out what would work and goes after it. He'd back vouchers, he says, if he thought they could succeed. (He thinks his friend Draper will "get his head handed to him" on vouchers.)

Charter schools, on the other hand, occupy a golden space in education reform. Considered moderate, they operate on public money but don't have to follow most public-school guidelines. Charter-school teachers must be certified, and their students have to take the Stanford Achievement Test as a means of evaluation, but teachers can run their classrooms as they wish. Freedom is key.

As a student at Bowdoin College, Hastings tutored other students. He later joined the Peace Corps to teach high school math in Swaziland. Then came his fortune and the chance to really make an impact.

"I've been really fortunate in business," he says. (This is an understatement--Hastings's first company, Pure Software, sold for $750 million in 1997.)

Pleasantly unemployed, Hastings began thinking about what he wanted to do with his time and money. Education was it. As he tells it, he went charging up to Stanford University to talk with education professor Michael Kirst and discuss his business-based ideas: merit pay for teachers, competition between schools, the eradication of tenure.

"He laughed," Hastings recalls. "He said, 'We've been trying to reform education for 50 years. I don't know how many professional people have come in saying we need to make education run more like business. And you get involved, you spend a lot of money and eventually you get bored and go away.'"

"That was a good wake-up call for me," Hastings says. He enrolled in Stanford's master's program in education in fall 1997. He lasted a semester, he says, before deciding to devote his time to trying to raise the number of allowable state charter schools. (The original 1992 law permitted only 100.)

"I realized that most of school improvement was about politics," he says. "It wasn't so much about whether we should use blue chalk instead of white chalk, but it was about implementing the ideas. Every city has a couple of great pilot programs, but they never get spread around."

On the advice of former California gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi, Hastings met with the teachers union to address their concerns about charter schools, exchanging their support on raising the cap on charter schools for his support in guaranteeing the schools collective bargaining rights. The bill that raised the number of allowable charter schools received overwhelming bipartisan support.

"That helped me realize this is not a Republican issue," says the conservative Hastings. "It's a bipartisan issue."

Hastings admits that he doesn't have all the answers for education. But he does talk bluntly about what makes him qualified to lead education reform.

"I have an awareness of the economic reality of today and the next 20 years," he says. "We're maybe one-third to halfway through the computer revolution. We're about 15 to 20 percent through the Internet revolution. And we're maybe 5 percent through the biotech revolution. The next 20 to 40 years will be hugely prosperous for America as a country. The only question is, 'Who gets to play?'

"There's still a big chasm there. I don't know what to do about the chasm. But what I am interested in doing is making it easier to get a good education."

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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