Milken was far from alone in the belief that education could be revolutionized through radical new business models. In 2012, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein established the Amplify division within News Corp. At the time of his initial investment, Murdoch described K–12 education as “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” Their idea was to overturn the way children were taught in public schools by integrating technology into the classroom. Although inspirational, the idea entailed competing with a series of multibillion-dollar global leaders in educational hardware, software, and curriculum development. After several years and more than $1 billion, with no serious prospect of ever turning a profit, Murdoch and Klein sold their venture for scrap value to Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow, last year.
Indeed, over the past couple of decades, a veritable who’s who of investors and entrepreneurs has seen an opportunity to apply market discipline or new technology to a sector that often seems to shun both on principle. Yet as attractive and intuitive as these opportunities seemed, those who pursued them have, with surprising regularity, lost their shirts. JP Morgan backed Edison Schools’ ill-conceived effort to outsource public education in the late 1990s and saw the business lose 90 percent of its value during its four years as a public company; Goldman Sachs was one of many private-equity firms that came up empty after betting on the inevitable ascendance of for-profit universities; the billionaire Ronald Perelman shut down his futuristic K–12 educational-technology company, GlobalScholar, after spending $135 million and concluding that the software was faulty and a “mirage”; by the time the hedge-fund titan John Paulson was able to sell the last of his stake in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in 2015, he had likely lost hundreds of millions financing the company’s misguided mission to remake textbook publishing.
Not all financial investments in education end badly, but the number that have is notable, as are the magnitudes of the fiascos, in stark contrast to the successes of many of these same investors in other domains. The precise sources of failure in each instance are diverse, as are the educational subsectors targeted and the approaches pursued. But what many share is the sweeping nature of their ambition.
You can see this ambition in both the scale and the scope that many of these ventures sought out—often simultaneously. Scale can be an important driver of sustainable profitability, but it is striking just how many for-profit educational ventures—particularly those centered on bricks-and-mortar educational services—have confused scale, which is a relative concept, with absolute size. For services like day care and classroom education, local or regional density of operations can be advantageous, because it enables efficient management of personnel (by far the largest cost), the sharing of fixed expenses like marketing, and sometimes even pricing power. The benefits of a national footprint are seldom as obvious. Yet it is national scale that many ventures have sought. For example, Milken’s effort to roll up many of the nation’s day-care centers began in 1998 and reached its zenith with the $1 billion purchase of KinderCare in 2005. The inherently local nature of this business, however, ensured that its profitability did not improve as it grew larger. When Milken finally sold the business last year, he received less than what he’d paid for his day-care acquisitions over the previous 17 years.