Neo-colonialism meets neo-paternalism
If we were to list the lessons learned from charter schools, it would probably look like this: By breaking down bureaucratic and procedural barriers, these schools have opened the education market to innovators, fresh thinking, and experimentation. But simply unlocking the gates didn’t necessarily produce quality—good rules are different from no rules. That’s basically the thinking behind economist Paul (son of Roy) Romer’s “charter cities” movement, which is, in fact, inspired in part by his father’s work in education and charter schools more generally. Traditional development theory says that freedom and prosperity go hand-in-hand. Romer believes that smart business regulation and a business-friendly culture are what really attract investment, instead of just freeing a Third World economy from, for example, authoritarian control. Thus his plan: If you give a swath of land in a developing country to an “enlightened” (i.e., First World) government, which in turn establishes smart business regulation and a culture of investment, not only will investors and ideas flock to the site, but the areas around the it—and eventually, even, the whole country—will be inspired to replicate its model governance structure. You might call it “neo-colonial” development. Romer points to Hong Kong, whose British business climate inspired economic reform on the mainland, as his model. We’d take his analogy one step further: The best charter schools, as we learned from David Whitman, are neo-paternalistic, seeking to immerse poor youngsters in a middle-class, achievement-oriented milieu. Culture matters, too, whether in schooling or economic development.
“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty,” by Sebastian Mallaby, The Atlantic, July/August 2010