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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/19/2010

Ravitch on Obama's scary ed reform agenda

By Valerie Strauss

The following was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog that she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

On the blog, Ravitch and Meier write letters to each other about what matters most in education. In this piece, Ravitch gives us a valuable lesson on what “school reform” means to the Obama administration, and how important privatization of public schools is to the agenda.

Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” in which she talks about how evidence compelled her to drop her support of No Child Left Behind.

This piece is a bit longer than many that I post, but you'll learn a lot if you take the time to read it.


Diane Ravitch’s latest letter to Deborah Meier:

You and I are old enough to remember heated debates about what democracy in education means. Some argued that it had to do with the governance of education, with the ability of the public to participate in decisions affecting their children. Some maintained that it had to do with the provision of a high-quality education in every school, so that the education available to those with the least resources was as good as the education available to those with the most resources. There were many other definitions, but this much is clear: The argument did not center on whether to have good public schools, but how to make them better for all.

Now we are at a new juncture. The Obama administration has resolved that "school reform" requires privatization of as many public schools as possible. Officials in the administration point to examples of truly excellent privately managed charter schools and imply that all privately managed schools will be equally excellent, just by being privately managed.

Now, anyone who pays attention to the newspapers knows that this presumption is wrong. There are excellent charter schools, and there are fly-by-night operations, and there are greedy speculators who see a chance to make money while drilling kids on the basics, and there are many in-betweens who are yet to prove themselves.

The charter concept is a promising one, but only if the charters commit to helping the kids who can’t make it in regular public schools. Then they would serve an important public service. Most, however, seem to think that they are supposed to compete with public schools and drive them out of business so that privately run schools can take over a basic public function and take over public space, leaving themselves free to remove the most difficult students.

Whence comes the strong and powerful push to turn more public school students over to privately run schools? Well, let me name a few sources. First, there is Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top fund, which dangles $4 billion before the states if only they are willing to open the door to more privately managed schools. Secretary of Education Duncan signaled his intention to promote the charter school "silver bullet" by hiring the CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund as CEO of the Race to the Top. Honestly, when you put a charter school promoter in charge of $4 billion in federal funds, what else would you expect other than advocacy for privatization?

Then come the billionaires. We already know that the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation are all big-time supporters of privatization. See Chapter 10 in my book for the story of this convergence of agendas.

Then come even more billionaires, usually clustered around one or two overlapping groups. One such group is the aforementioned NewSchools Venture Fund. A recent article in The New York Times described a gathering of this group at a "luxury hotel in Pasadena, California."

At that tony meeting, investors who started companies such as Google and Amazon mingled with executives from the Gates Foundation, McKinsey consultants, and scholars from Stanford and Harvard. Secretary Duncan spoke to the assembled throng by video from Washington and pledged "to combine ’your ideas with our dollars’ from the federal government." Yes, indeed, it is a real movement, led by the richest entrepreneurs in our society.

The other group of billionaires devoted to privatization is Democrats for Education Reform. This is a small and politically powerful organization that involves some of the nation’s wealthiest hedge-fund managers.


A story in The New York Times explained t
hat when New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo wanted entrée to the hedge-fund crowd for his political fundraising, he had first to meet with Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. No money for his candidacy unless he showed a favorable stance towards privatization. Democrats for Education Reform—referred to as DFER (dee-fer)—is active nationally, promoting the candidacy of pro-charter candidates for state legislatures and for national office.

When I visited Colorado, the local teachers’ union leader told me that her group was vastly outspent by DFER in the debate about legislation meant to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. That’s another issue DFER is supporting, in tandem with Secretary Duncan and the Race to the Top.

Who is DFER? The Times says it includes the founders of hedge funds such as: Anchorage Capital Partners, with $8 billion under management; Greenlight Capital, with $6.8 billion; and Pershing Square Capital Management, with $5.5 billion. DFER is actively supporting candidates in many states who will help charter school legislation and actively opposing those who do not.

Now, I know Joe Williams. I used to have coffee regularly with him when he was a reporter for the New York Daily News, and I like him a lot. And, I don’t begrudge the right of the hedge-fund managers to get involved in political action. It’s a free country.

But something about this scenario is troubling. I guess it is the fundamental unfairness of a fight in which one side has an all-star list of billionaires (and mere multi-millionaires), and the other side has parents and teachers whose resources are meager. Granted, the teachers’ unions have some independent resources, but what they have to spend politically to defend public education is peanuts compared with what the billionaires spend to privatize public schools.

When you add the resources of the billionaires to the vast power of the U.S. Department of Education, it is a very lopsided battle indeed. Arne Duncan has $4 billion-plus to push privatization (on the day this blog is published, he will visit a charter school in Brooklyn that achieves remarkable results; I assume he will not visit the one in Queens that is housed in trailers in a muddy field, placed there to help a developer sell apartments in a not-yet-built building).

Yes, it is troubling to see the full-court press to privatize big chunks of public education.

We should have a full public debate about this. With so much of the media fawning over the super-rich and the celebrities who are supporting privatization, it is hard to get that debate. One place to start is this blog: http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/.

Sharon Higgins, a parent activist in Oakland, Calif., is doing the investigative work that the media should be doing. (I notice that her file on charter scandals around the nation is not yet up, but bookmark the site, as it will be, including the fact that 18 charter schools in Philadelphia are under federal investigation for corruption and various financial misdeeds.)

Let me repeat what I said in my book: Some charters are excellent; some are awful. In aggregate, they do not produce better results than regular public schools. But while so many in the media and the glitterati are agog about charters, let’s not forget that more than 95 percent of our students are in the regular public schools.

We have a public school system that needs improvement. Nothing coming from Race to the Top will help. It may even do untold harm to the system on which our nation has relied for more than 150 years.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 19, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Diane Ravitch, Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  charter schools and ravitch, death and life of the great american school system, democrats for education reform, diane ravitch, ed secretary duncan, newschools venture fund, race to the top, school reform  
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Comments

This is a very sobering, even chilling, article. While I believe strongly in alternative schools, I also believe that the public school system in the US is one of the primary reasons we have had a strong middle class, and therefore a strong backbone to make a great country.

As the middle class has been chipped away at in the last twenty years, and we seem headed straight for the 3rd-world structure of extreme have and have-nots,the concentrated privatization of public schooling pointed out here would seem to hasten that situation. The other
important issue is that there is so little holding our country together cohesively anymore - not even langauge - that we ought to be having a public discussion about how public schools help hold our nation together.

There are also some very unpleasant truths about private schools: often the teachers make less than public school teachers, they can be fired at will, and retirement benefits are almost non-existent beyond what teachers can put aside themselves in small IRA-type savings.

How much of what is going on described in this article has to do with (mostly-male) economic domination of the next generation and less than their well-being?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 19, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

"Granted, the teachers’ unions have some independent resources, but what they have to spend politically to defend public education is peanuts compared with what the billionaires spend to privatize public schools."

This is patently false. The teachers' unions are the largest political spenders in the nation. It's not even close.

http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/index_stfed.php

http://www.fppc.ca.gov/reports/Report38104.pdf

Posted by: MikeAntonucci | May 19, 2010 8:18 AM | Report abuse

@ MikeAntonucci:

"This is patently false. The teachers' unions are the largest political spenders in the nation. It's not even close."

Actually, once you look at the real figures, the NEA's no. 7. AT&T is in the lead.

Posted by: clevin | May 19, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Citation for "the real figures"?

Posted by: MikeAntonucci | May 19, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Great site at OpenSecrets.org, Mike Antonucci. Here's more information from them:

"In addition to campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates, companies, labor unions, and other organizations spend billions of dollars each year to lobby Congress and federal agencies. Some special interests retain lobbying firms, many of them located along Washington's legendary K Street; others have lobbyists working in-house. We've got totals spent on lobbying, beginning in 1998, for everyone from AAI Corp. to Zurich Financial."

The totals spent on lobbying from 1998-2010:

-Pharmaceuticals/Health Products $1,900,575,003
-Insurance $1,385,477,646
-Electric Utilities $1,294,084,244
-Computers/Internet $1,050,124,099
-Business Associations $1,047,867,770
-Oil & Gas $958,991,539
-Education $890,274,910

By only mentioning campaign spending, for a minute you had us tricked.

Posted by: pondoora | May 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

And more from OpenSecrets.org @ http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/index.php

In boxing, big punchers seek knockouts. In government, the same principle applies: The wealthiest corporations and special interest groups usually pepper politicians with overwhelming amounts of money in hope of influencing the political process.

Here you'll find total contributions for the 100 biggest givers in federal-level politics since 1989

#1 is AT&T Inc @ $44,886,230
#6 is National Education Assn @ $30,282,067

And at #5 is Obama's best buddy, Goldman Sachs @ $31,684,525.

Why don't you save your complaints for the good deal Goldman Sachs got for their money, Mike?

PS: The problems that people see about the competency of America's offspring, and thus our country's future, were never caused by the public schools or their teachers. In fact, the teachers struggle to deal with those problems in their classrooms everyday (lack of intellectualism and interest in learning, inadequate work ethic, superficiality and obsession with consumerism and pop culture, etc.). It is ridiculous to think the public schools and their teachers should have the power to fix them.

Posted by: pondoora | May 19, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Correction. I miscounted.

#1 = AT&T Inc @ $44,886,230
#7 = National Education Assn @ $30,282,067

In the category above about federal giving, clevin was exactly right.

Posted by: pondoora | May 19, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

The millionaires may have good intentions, but it is unlikely they care about educating young people in many different subject areas. They need some teachers to help them and they are ignoring the teachers, except for extremist, reform types. I don't think they know what they are doing. I agree with PLMichael Artist at Large, except I think it has to do with a "corporate mentality" and not so much to do with gender. There are many guys in education.
PL Micaels- I am glad you can comment on this. I find it to be so depressing that I don't know where to begin. They just sound ignorant. Put together with the homeschooling rights people, they will zap us back into the dark ages in no time.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 19, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

an example of "charter school education"
in the state of Texas (see below) --

excerpt from:

http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul/2010/05/Chads-Award.aspx

(a young man/prospective teacher) -- "... accepted a job teaching Spanish at a charter school for at-risk high school students in downtown Houston. The salary was about half what I'd earned in my previous position at a law firm. The school was under the direction of a woman whose only credential was certification in teaching home economics. On the plus side, teaching certification was not required for my job, and there was no contract. I wouldn't have to invest time and money in certification programs yet. And if I hated the job, I could just give some notice and take off.

Characteristics of the charter school included open enrollment, a self-paced curriculum (hardly appropriate for a large population of special education and below-grade level students), a director who changed the curriculum daily and hired and fired personnel at the drop of a hat (even members of her own family and lifelong friends), and students in and out of jail and/or rehabilitation programs. When the year concluded at the end of May, only a handful of students sitting in my classes had been there since the doors opened in August ... "

Posted by: honestaction | May 19, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

an example of "charter school education"
in the state of Texas (see below) --

excerpt from:

http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul/2010/05/Chads-Award.aspx

(a young man/prospective teacher) -- "... accepted a job teaching Spanish at a charter school for at-risk high school students in downtown Houston. The salary was about half what I'd earned in my previous position at a law firm. The school was under the direction of a woman whose only credential was certification in teaching home economics. On the plus side, teaching certification was not required for my job, and there was no contract. I wouldn't have to invest time and money in certification programs yet. And if I hated the job, I could just give some notice and take off.

Characteristics of the charter school included open enrollment, a self-paced curriculum (hardly appropriate for a large population of special education and below-grade level students), a director who changed the curriculum daily and hired and fired personnel at the drop of a hat (even members of her own family and lifelong friends), and students in and out of jail and/or rehabilitation programs. When the year concluded at the end of May, only a handful of students sitting in my classes had been there since the doors opened in August ... "

Posted by: honestaction | May 19, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Texas state law allows most charter school teachers to ONLY have a high school diploma !!
Why? -- In Texas, charter schools are only required to hire certified teachers in the areas of bilingual and special education.
BIG LOOPHOLE IN TEXAS STATE LAW -- see it to believe it --
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7002614.html

Posted by: honestaction | May 19, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

"A charter school teacher in Houston fired after cell phone video showed her allegedly beating a 13-year-old student does not have a teaching certificate.
The Houston Chronicle reported Thursday that Sheri Lynn Davis, who was fired Monday as a science teacher at Jamie’s House Charter School, was not required to be certified..."
http://www.khou.com/news/local/Teacher-in-student-beating-not-certified-by-state-93681084.html

Posted by: honestaction | May 19, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

So is that how Houston is getting around the teacher shortage? Hiring non-certified people?

Posted by: celestun100 | May 19, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Talk about cherry picking statistics. The Open Secrets report I cited is the only report that combines state and federal political spending. The vast majority of education spending comes from state and local revenues. It's only natural that some interest groups would outspend teachers' unions at the federal level alone.

Is it necessary to add that there are only two teachers' unions, while there are thousands of "pharmaceuticals/health products" companies/interest groups?

And remember Ravitch's claim: "Granted, the teachers’ unions have some independent resources, but what they have to spend politically to defend public education is peanuts compared with what the billionaires spend to privatize public schools." That's utter nonsense, and can't be backed up with numbers.

Posted by: MikeAntonucci | May 19, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

The teachers' unions are trying to help children. To educate everyone. They are not perfect, but I don't see that getting rid of unions will help teachers or students. It is currently politically correct to blame unions for everything, and to blame teachers. I think the reason people want to get rid of unions is so they don't have to pay to educate other people's kids. I argue that the kids are our future.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 19, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Thanks celestun100 for reframing my comment about economic domination coming from a "corporate" mentality versus a male mindset. My profuse appologies to the men, especially those in teaching!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 19, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - You are wonderful. Thanks for printing all the great information that yu do.

Posted by: jlp19 | May 19, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Yes, thank you, Valerie. You are a journalist who truly understands education. Were you a teacher? I can't seem to find out.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 20, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

Podoora said:
"PS: The problems that people see about the competency of America's offspring, and thus our country's future, were never caused by the public schools or their teachers. In fact, the teachers struggle to deal with those problems in their classrooms everyday (lack of intellectualism and interest in learning, inadequate work ethic, superficiality and obsession with consumerism and pop culture, etc.). It is ridiculous to think the public schools and their teachers should have the power to fix them."

Very well put. It's like blaming a doctor for having sick patients or expecting a firefighter to prevent fires when people smoke in bed.

This makes me think of how teachers were expected to cure racism when busing began. Our society at large spent 300 years cultivating a racist society. When the time came to finally put an end to end it, they dumped the responsibility on the backs of classroom teachers.

Posted by: aed3 | May 20, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

A question not asked here is why the fight for charters by America's Hedge Fund managers among others? The old adage "follow the money" gives us one answer. Here is a NY Daily News column on how Wall Street can double its money on real estate investments connected with charter schools. Yes they have found a tax loophole that connects investing and charter schools. See the background at

http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/education/2010/05/07/2010-05-07_albany_charter_cash_cow_big_banks_making_a_bundle_on_new_construction_as_schools.html

So to clarify we have the "evil" teachers and their unions who are dedicated to educating our children and to public schools versus the Billionaires and hedge fund managers who are dedicated to what?

Posted by: kmlisle | May 22, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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