“It’s Not a School Problem”

Diane Ravitch used to be a staunch supporter of education reform. Not anymore.
Photograph by Ryan Dorsett

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: You are famous for having made a dramatic public reversal on the subject of education. As a historian and as somebody who was involved in the policy making process as a member of George H. W. Bush’s Department of Education, you were a supporter of some of the elements of what is now known as reform—high-stakes testing, accountability, competition, school choice. And then three years ago you broke with that movement and became one of its fiercest critics. Was it difficult to admit you’d been wrong?

DIANE RAVITCH: Writing a book is a very public way of saying I was wrong, and it was very important to say I was wrong. I won’t say it was easy because I alienated a lot of people with whom I’d been very friendly, and I had to break a lot of longtime associations with organizations and friends, and that was hard. The easy part was saying, “This is wrong. I’m sorry that I had anything to do with it, and I want to do whatever I can to reverse it.”

JS: In your new book, Reign of Error , you say that the well-meaning people who support these reforms—and presumably these are the people who used to be your allies—have “allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education.” You really think the result of the reform movement will be the destruction of public education?

DR: I think that’s the direction we’re heading in. First of all, I have a lot of trouble with the word “reform” being attached to what’s happening right now. That’s why I call it the privatization movement. So if the privatization movement continues unchecked, then yes, it will destroy public education. There’ll be public education here and there in relatively affluent communities that are untouched, but it’ll be dead in the cities, and it’ll be dead in the inner suburbs. It won’t be completely privatized, but there’ll be a dual system. That’s what I say in the book. We thought that with the Brown v. Board of Education  decision we’d gotten away from dual schools, but the rise of this privatization movement says, “Here’s a chance for your children to get out of the public schools and just be with kids like themselves, and if there are any kids who are trouble, we kick them out.” And lots of parents say, “Wow, that sounds like a great deal, I’ll go for that.”

JS: Your point is that accountability can lead to school closures, which can lead to privately run charters.

DR: Well, that is the point. And that’s the point of, for an example, the A to F grading system. No school ever got better because it was given a D or F grade—that’s a way of setting them up for closure. And we’ve never, I mean, I look back as a historian, and we’ve never in the history of American education had a movement that was designed to close huge numbers of schools.

JS: The reform movement, or the privatization movement, as you call it, has become extremely powerful. Not only has George W. Bush as both governor and president been a big proponent, with No Child Left Behind, but so has President Obama, with Race to the Top. And in the private sector, the biggest names in the country are behind it—Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and many others. Do you feel as if you’re sort of a lonely voice of dissent?

DR: Actually, no. The movement against the privatizers is very powerful—not in terms of money and not in terms of political power, but the numbers are overwhelmingly on the side of those who want to preserve public education and make it better. My hunch is that if you were to have a national convention of the privatizers and you were to exclude the paid staff, it would maybe fill a hotel ballroom. You’d have Bill Gates and Michael Dell and Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg—you might end up with a thousand people.

JS: The food would probably be pretty good, though.

DR: Yeah, the food would be fantastic. But you’re not talking about a lot of people, you’re talking about political power and money. The politicians see where the money is and they like the money. They need the money. That’s what makes politics work.

JS: Parents look at this situation and think, “I want to do what’s right for my kid and for every other kid in the system, but there are experts on either side arguing that their ideas are right, and they’ve studied the issue more than I ever will.” At some point they just have to take a leap of faith. Why should they put their faith in you, as opposed to the other guys?

DR: I’m not asking anybody to put their faith in me. I’m asking them to put their faith in the idea of a democratic society. What’s going on right now is an effort to turn what is a public responsibility into a free market exercise. We’ve already seen the privatization movement take hold in the prison system, we’ve seen it take hold in the hospital system, and there are lots of other areas of public life where people are looking for an opportunity to make big bucks. And now their focus is on education as being a moneymaker and a place to invest and turn a profit. There’s a story in the current issue of Forbes about this. The headline is “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City.” And it’s about people making a killing on charter schools. This is really a question of citizenship. When you’re driving late at night and you see a red light and there’s nobody looking, do you run it? Or do you stop?

JS: I usually stop.

DR: If you’re eager to get home, it may be in your self-interest to run the red light, but you think, “I’m a good

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