Condoleezza Rice: Education disparity biggest threat to U.S. security

Condoleezza Rice addresses the crowd at the Wichita Chamber of Commerce annual meeting at Century II on Thursday.
Condoleezza Rice addresses the crowd at the Wichita Chamber of Commerce annual meeting at Century II on Thursday. The Wichita Eagle

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Wichita audience Thursday that she thinks disparity in K-12 education is the biggest threat there is to national security and prescribed vouchers as at least a temporary solution.

The first black woman to serve as secretary of state and the descendant of slaves, Rice said that she can still look at ZIP codes and tell which students will get a quality education and which won’t.

She said the wealthy can obtain better education for their children by moving to more upscale areas or sending their children to private school, while a poorer child is often trapped in a substandard school.

Until we can fix that, give the child a voucher, she said, drawing applause from an audience of several thousand who gathered at the Century II Convention Center.

That remark didn’t sit well with Diane Gjerstad, director of government relations for the Wichita school district, who attended the speech.

“I guess I would just say that Kansas public schools perform in the top 10 nationally and perform even better for students in poverty,” she said. “We are very different than other states.”

Rice’s comments on education were part of a wide-ranging speech on international and domestic affairs, delivered to Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce members and guests at the Chamber’s annual meeting.

Rice served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009 and national security adviser from 2001-2005.

Before that, she was a faculty member and provost at Stanford University in California.

Rice returned to California after her government service and is a professor of political science, specializing in global business and the economy. She is also a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, a national conservative think tank.

Rice also is serving on the first College Football Playoff Selection Committee, one of 12 people who will decide which four teams can play for the national championship.

Her appointment to the committee has been controversial in some quarters because she is the only member of the panel without direct football experience as a coach, player or athletics executive.

Rice briefly addressed the football issue during her talk, thanking the crowd for its warm welcome and adding when you’re a member of the championship committee, “you can’t take a welcome for granted anyplace.”

Later, when Chamber executive committee chairman Wayne Chambers asked whether she would favor Texas Christian or Baylor for a spot in the playoffs, she punted.

“The truth of the matter is it’s still to be determined,” she said.

Rice acknowledged that the state of international affairs has become chaotic, a result of “tectonic plates that are shifting beneath the surface.”

The threats range from terrorists like the Syrian-Iraqi radical group ISIS – “so brutal that al-Qaida expelled them” – to “great powers behaving badly.”

Her strongest words for a world leader were reserved for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rice rose through the ranks of government as an expert on Russia.

“There’s really only one word for it, he’s kind of a thug,” Rice said of Putin.

She said Putin still sees the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the great disasters of human history and himself in the mold of strong Russian leaders like Peter the Great. She said he sees his mission as taking back territory from other countries that have large concentrations of ethnic Russians.

“That’s a very dangerous historic mission,” she said. “He has to be deterred.”

She also cited China as a problem for belligerent expansionist policies that have caused clashes with neighboring states over obscure but oil-rich islands, a policy that has prompted Japan to consider altering its pacifist post-World War II constitution and rearm.

“Nobody wants war in Asia, but somebody’s going to make a mistake … when great powers start throwing their weight around,” she said.

As for the Middle East, she said problems stem from two two major sources: popular dissatisfaction with life under corrupt dynastic regimes, and the breaking up of artificial states created by the British when they abandoned that part of their empire.

She said the big concern is the ungoverned spaces that are technically part of nations but really not under government control.

One such ungoverned space is the desert region along the Syria-Iraq border where ISIS has set itself up as a de facto Islamic state. Rice said the U.S. withdrew from Iraq too early, before its military was fully trained, but that there’s a chance that more elite Iraqi troops can engage ISIS.

She said she’s not sure what to do with the Syrian side of that conflict, where dictator Bashar al-Assad is facing revolution from within and there isn’t a military structure that can take on ISIS.

Rice said the U.S., because of its military and economic power and social authority, is the only country that can step up and try to contain the damage.

She said she understands that the people of the United States are tired of the seemingly endless entanglements in other people’s wars.

But, she added, “The Chinese are not tired. The Russians are not tired. ISIS isn’t tired.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.