by Diane Ravitch, Knopf, 2013, 416 pages, $27.95
As I turned the pages of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch, I kept having a mental image of an editorial cartoon showing two groups staring across a deep crevasse at one another.
On one side stood the “corporate reformers” — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, flanked by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee. Behind them was a battalion of PR folk, each one pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with money.
On the other side stood the “loyal opposition” — an army of educators, parents and local citizen groups brandishing washboards, rolling pins and iPads led by a 75-year-old grandmother (Ravitch) atop a mound of research reports, books and data.
A former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, Ravitch leaves no doubt in her latest book that there is a war raging for the future of public education — a war that is more about money than education.
“Public education, established in America’s towns and villages in the mid-nineteenth century … is now in jeopardy,” she writes. “Under the cover of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom,’ we may lose one of our society’s greatest resources, our public school system — a system whose doors are open to all.”
Lending credibility to Ravitch’s concern over the role of money in the education equation is a statement by Rupert Murdock, CEO of News Corp. and a major player in corporate reform: “When it comes to K-12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs…”
Ravitch cites example after example of vast amounts of dollars being used to elect reform-friendly school boards, lobby for policy changes and keep the PR machine humming.
• In Tennessee, Michelle Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, spent $900,000 on legislative races.
• In California, $250,000 came from out-of-state to defeat an incumbent school board member in Santa Clara County.
• In Ohio, the owner of a chain of for-profit charter schools who receives $100 million annually from the state made $3 million in campaign contributions over 10 years.
• In the state of Washington, a charter school initiative was backed by $11 million PR effort.
— New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $1 million to a school board race in Los Angeles.
“A small number of billionaires have poured millions of dollars into political campaigns across the nation, using the positive rhetoric of ‘reform’ and images of happy children in neat uniforms to advance their agenda,” writes Ravitch.
Of course, to usher in sweeping change you must first convince the public that a crisis is at hand. Such an effort has been underway for years, as pointed out nearly 20 years ago by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools.”
The “reformers” contend that American education is in crisis. Ravitch says the facts do not back up such claims; for more than 300 pages she painstakingly shoots down claims about merit pay for teachers, vouchers, charter schools, increasing privatization of public education, test scores and more with research and nationally-recognized data.
This is where Ravitch is really in her element as, in addition to her experience in Washington, she is one of the nation’s leading education historians, author of 10 books and recipient of nine honorary degrees.
Ravitch concludes by offering common sense, research-supported approaches to improving public education with ideas on early childhood education, class size, curriculum, strengthening the education profession, school governance and more.
What may be the most telling passage is on page 324: “The way forward requires that education policy be shaped by evidence and the knowledge and wisdom of educators, not by a business plan shaped by free-market ideologues and entrepreneurs.”
Alabamians need only look to the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act to see the truth in this statement.
If you truly care about this state’s future, get two copies of this book. Read one and give the other to your state representative or senator, then call a community meeting to discuss education with him or her.
Larry Lee is a long-time advocate for public education and writes about education issues. He led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and serves on the board of a national education group, The Network for Public Education, with Diane Ravitch