Diane Ravitch wants you to think about this scenario: Imagine your community with two or three fire departments with different resources and you have to choose which one to call when your house catches fire. Or imagine your community with two or three different police departments that you choose among when you call 911.
Most Americans would see such scenarios as ridiculous, she believes. Yet when it comes to public education, another essential government function is being treated just that way.
“We’re creating a marketplace that’s a very unfair. Should we have two or three police departments serving each community? Should we have two or three fire departments serving each community? No. … And the same thing should be true for public schools.”
Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education, is founder and president of the Network for Public Education. She was the keynote speaker at an Oct. 21 virtual seminar hosted by Pastors for Texas Children and its affiliates in other states.
All across America, charter schools are taking away resources from public schools, while not facing the same scrutiny and not serving the same students, she charged. “Most charter schools are not publicly accountable.”
Charter schools have a “very high rate of turnover” as they open and close sometimes within an academic year, she added. Further, by selective admissions policies, they cherry-pick students to give a skewed perspective on their successes.
“Among the high-performing charter schools, they do not have the same proportion of kids with special needs, the same proportion of kids who are not English speaking. That means the public schools have a higher proportion of the most expensive kids to educate with less money to do it,” Ravitch explained.
Even charter schools that enroll a large number of minority students fall into the segregationist patterns of private and charter schools, she said.
“Most of the charter schools are far more segregated than the public schools; they’re either all Black or all white.”
“What the charter industry has done is to use poor kids, and particularly Black and Hispanic kids, to advance their narrative,” she continued. “The history of school choice comes directly out of segregation. … The origin of school choice is the segregationist governors and senators who said, ‘We don’t want our white kids to go to school with Black kids. ‘School choice’ did not appear in the lexicon until the late 1950s and 1960. … And it’s still a segregationist activity because most of the charter schools are far more segregated than the public schools; they’re either all Black or all white.”
But segregation isn’t the worst thing Ravitch sees in charter schools. Her bigger concern is the corporate interests that she believes take public funds to enrich themselves.
“A corporate chain is taking over your community’s schools,” she asserted.
Ravitch uses the word “plutocrat” freely to describe the billionaires she sees profiting off charter schools and private schools as competitors to public education. And that group represents a “bipartisan rogue’s gallery,” she added.
“Our public schools belong to the public, and yet in state after state we have billionaires who have decided public money should be taken away from the public schools. They are coming in uninvited,” Ravitch said, noting there never has been a referendum approved by voters to give public funds to charter schools or private schools.
“There is a struggle for the future of public education in America.”
“There is a struggle for the future of public education in America. On the one hand you have billionaires, and on the other hand you have the public.”
“Parents didn’t say, ‘Come disrupt our schools,” she said. “Texas is a conservative state. It is not conservative to tear down a public institution like the schools without the consent of the governed. … It would be a good thing to have a referendum about this.”
Between 85% and 90% of American children attend public schools, Ravitch reported, while charter schools now enroll about 6% of the schoolchildren in the country.
“If we want to help our youth — our 50 million kids in public schools — we don’t help them by defunding their schools,” she said. “It’s really important to fix public schools. One of the ways to do that is to fund them properly.”
‘No skin in the game’
Parents and citizens must hold their elected officials accountable for the priority and success of public education, Ravitch told the pastors’ group. “We should say to our public officials, ‘You will be held accountable for educating our children.’”
Instead of listening to parents and teachers, legislators have become beholden to that group of plutocrats, she charged. “The control of public education policy by people who have no skin in the game, by billionaires who never have been in a public school, didn’t attend one, their children are not in one — this is not democracy.”
Ravitch is one of the foremost researchers on this topic in American life today. She has written 13 books and has a widely read blog and tweets from @DianeRavitch. Her latest book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, provided the impetus for her Oct. 21 appearance, in which she was interviewed by Evan Smith, founder of Texas Tribune.
“From the research, charters have lower graduation rates, lower test rates than Texas public schools,” she said. “The Texas Education Agency just got $100 million from Betsy DeVos to open more charter schools. … Why keep investing in failure?”
“What is the reason that anyone would want a corporate chain to take over their local public school or replace their local public school?” she asked, comparing this to the business model of “opening another hot dog stand when the last one failed.”
On testing, merit pay and vouchers
Speaking on a range of other public education questions, Ravitch said:
On over-testing of students: “I would like to offer a proposition: Don’t mandate a test for our children if you are not willing to take it yourself. There’s a lot of talk about teachers and students being held accountable. You should hold the legislature accountable too.”
“No boats have been lifted by a rising tide. There is no rising tide.”
“We now have had 20 years starting with No Child Left Behind of test-based policy … and it has produced no change. … No boats have been lifted by a rising tide. There is no rising tide.”
On government vouchers for private schools: “Vouchers are actually harmful.,” she said, explaining that the relatively small value of vouchers “won’t get you into an elite school.” Vouchers help well-to-do families more than poorer families and do not level the playing field.
Merit pay for teachers: “There has been 100 years of effort to implement merit pay in the schools, and it has never worked. Teachers are doing the best they can. When you say to them, ‘I’ll give you $15,000 more if the scores go up, it disincentivizes teaching and incentivizes teaching to the test. And there is no evidence that test scores go up.”
A further flaw with this system is that giving teachers a bonus does nothing to motivate students to learn more or better, she added. “Students don’t get the bonus.”
On the effects of poverty: “As long as we have 20% of our kids living in terrible poverty, the schools can’t fix that. We have to address the dramatic inequality in our country.”