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Diane Ravitch on Disruption’s Educational Carnage

No Child Left Behind was a disaster and school choice has failed. A new book points the way forward from the wreckage.




Diane Ravitch
Photo: Jack Miller

It’s been 10 years since education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch became the school choice movement’s most vocal apostate by detailing its fallacies in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Her tale of how a onetime charter school true believer from within the corporate-reform think-tank establishment could no longer ignore the contrary evidence of her own eyes came as a wake-up call. It gave authoritative voice to the anger and frustration of the over 3 million public school classroom teachers whose hands had been tied by the country’s destructive disinvestment in its children. And it contained Ravitch’s own vow to devote the rest of her life to trying to make up for her error.

That mea culpa thrust the New York University research professor into the center of the national public education debate and elevated her to a role as a revered leader of the groundswell of political resistance that followed. With 2013’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, she further documented the failure of charters and the carnage wreaked by high-stakes testing, while inventorying evidence-supported and cost-effective reforms that had been sidetracked by the school-privatization movement.

Now, Ravitch completes the arc with Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, which was published last week.

The completed trilogy bears all the Ravitch signatures: her mastery of the rapier epithet and incisive metaphor; her lucid and authoritative marshaling of the evidence; and, most of all, the page-turning, first-person power of her own dramatic conversion that formed the heart of Death and Life.

Slaying Goliath charges that, after 20 years of having wholly hijacked education reform with destructive high-stakes testing and standardized test scores, and by demonizing teachers, the school choice movement — whose members Ravitch pejoratively redubs “the Disrupters” — has not only failed at reform, it has awakened a sleeping giant. Ravitch identifies and deconstructs the aims and the rhetoric of the Disrupters, along with their manifold scandal-tainted failures. But Slaying Goliath is primarily the story of the anti-privatization resistance and its culmination in the 2018-19 Red for Ed teachers’ strikes, and in this year’s 12-person field of 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidates, of whom only one (neoliberal billionaire Michael Bloomberg) is running as a charter school booster.

Capital & Main spoke to Ravitch by phone as she prepared for a cross-country book promotion tour that will bring her to California with a stop in Menlo Park on February 6 and in Los Angeles February 9.

Capital & Main: Why Slaying Goliath, why now?

Diane Ravitch: I started writing the book in February of 2018, inspired by the West Virginia teachers’ strike. West Virginia changed the national narrative, which was a huge accomplishment, because we’ve had at least 20 years of teacher-bashing, and public school bashing and appeals funded by billionaires for privatization, making outlandish promises about how if the schools were in private hands, they would accomplish X, Y and Z. And it took time to figure out that they hadn’t fulfilled any of their promises.

No Child Left Behind has required that we would have 100 percent [grade level] proficiency [in reading and math], and nobody made that goal. The things funded by Bill Gates and Eli Broad and all the other [billionaire charter promoters] had made outlandish claims about closing the achievement gap. And as I point out in the book, it’s literally impossible to close the achievement gap because if you’re using the standardized test as your measure, the gap is structured into it. So that’s really the focus, which is to say this behemoth, this Goliath, has not succeeded. And I boldly predict that the resistance will ultimately prevail because the billionaires have nothing to offer but disruption, and disruption is very bad for children.

Why do you think the groundswell of resistance you chronicle in Slaying Goliath is happening now?

Reed Hastings and Eli Broad and the California Charter Schools Association [CCSA] have had lots of time in which to show that they can solve all the problems. They haven’t solved the problems. And yet I continue to see these claims made that there’s a waiting list of hundreds of thousands of children, and no one can exactly pin down where these waiting lists are. It must be for only a handful of schools that won’t accept those children anyway. Because the charter schools that get those dramatically high test scores have incredibly high academic and behavioral standards, and they suspend and kick out kids and have high attrition rates. They’re not a model for public education. And what the Disrupters have never understood is that public education has an obligation to educate everyone and not just the children that it chooses.

Why do you think there continues to be so many Democrats that identify as social progressives but still beat the drum for charters and privatization?

The Disrupters have taken the language of civil rights and held it close to their breasts. You know, “We’re doing this for the children. We’re doing it for black and brown kids. We’re saving poor kids from failing public schools.” But once you defund the public schools – where 80 to 85 to 90 percent of the kids are – by opening charters, you’re hurting many more black and Hispanic kids than you’re helping the six or 10 or 15 percent that you’re pulling out.

One of the ways that the idea of charters has infiltrated the Democratic Party is through the funding activities of DFER — Democrats for Education Reform. One of the first places where I learned about DFER was a front page article in the New York Times about Andrew Cuomo, who was making his first run for governor. And it said that he wanted to raise money on Wall Street, and every door was closed to him until he found out that the person he had to see was Joe Williams, who at that time was the executive director of DFER. And what Cuomo was told, and in no uncertain terms, was that the path to Wall Street money runs through DFER.

And I don’t know, maybe [former California Congressperson] George Miller is a true believer in charter schools. But he was singled out by DFER as one of their favorite candidates. He had a fundraiser at one of the most expensive hotels in New York. Whether it was breakfast or lunch, I don’t recall, but the price of a ticket was something like $1,250. These were not poor black and Hispanic parents coming to hear George Miller; these were Wall Street people.

Here in Los Angeles, as Slaying Goliath points out, school district voters overturned the pro-charter board by electing resistance leader Jackie Goldberg, and the state has at least partially curbed its wide-open charter law by restoring some local control to local school boards. What does California need to do next to save its public schools?

Continue to reform its charter law. California had one of the worst charter laws in the country. First you had the biggest charter chain in California collapse — and I didn’t even include that in this book. The California Charter Academy was a chain of 60 storefront charters, and it simply went out of business and disappeared. California also had the single-biggest charter scandal in the history of charter schools, which is [last year’s] A3 Education scandal. There’s never been anything quite like that.

But I believe that charters should be approved by the local school district. Further changes in California’s charter law should say that if you’re vetoed by the local school board, you can’t have a charter. Now the California Charter Schools Association would fight that tooth and nail. They’d say, “Well, the local school doesn’t want competition.” I don’t think the local school board should have competition — it should have collaboration. It should have charters that actually help the kids in the community rather than compete to [take] the kids that they want. Number two would be: Ban not just for-profit schools, which I know are already banned, but all for-profit management. And third — and this would be very offensive to CCSA — I would require a cap on charter school executive compensation so that it was no greater than that of the local district superintendent’s.

Part of the resistance you chronicle in your book is your co-founding of the public education advocacy nonprofit Network for Public Education and its political arm, NPE Action. Will NPE Action be endorsing a presidential primary candidate?

I don’t think we’ll endorse in the primary, but we’ll certainly be endorsing in the general election. What we do have on the NPE Action website is the 2020 Presidential Candidates Project, where everybody who’s an active candidate is rated based on affiliations — whether they’re connected to any of the hedge fund groups that support privatization. We look at the statements they make and the positions that they take, and we grade them on their scores for public education as best as we can determine.

What needs to happen in this country for you to feel that you can declare mission accomplished and walk off into the sunset?

Well, I’ll be walking off into the sunset pretty soon whether I like it or not, because I’m 81 years old. The biggest challenge that all of us who care about public education have before us is educating the public to see through the rhetoric [and that] when people say, “Students first,” they really mean privatization first and profiteers first, and public schools last and teachers last.

But I’ll keep going until at some point there’ll be another person like [venture capitalist] Nick Hanauer, who will say, “We’re barking up the wrong tree, and we’re not helping kids. The problem is not the schools, the problem is poverty and dramatic inequality.” I think that his conversion, which I reference in the last chapter of Slaying Goliath, is very dramatic. The day that people recognize it is totally inefficient to run two separate school systems, and that the purpose of charters should be to collaborate and support public education, not to compete with it, and the day that we hear political candidates running for governor, senator or president say, “The biggest problem our children face is poverty,” that will be the day that I’ll think that I’ve done my job.

Diane Ravitch appears in Menlo Park on February 6 and in Los Angeles February 9.

Copyright Capital & Main

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