THERE ARE CURRENTLY about 50 million K-12 public school students and another five million in private school in the United States. With so many students — covering such a vast geographical, social, economic, and cultural spectrum — even under the best circumstances, there are bound to be a few problems. The public education system is historically quite decentralized, operated by myriad local school boards and districts. Yet as a whole, it has come under a nationwide perception of being completely dysfunctional. Is this criticism justified? Not for Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. “Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is,” she writes in her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, “and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.”
It would be a gross understatement to say that there’s a billion dollars to be made from the business of public education in this country; we’re spending in excess of $590 billion tax dollars on it this year alone. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that — like the Wall Street guys trying to get their hands on Social Security funds — the privatizers have come lining up in front of the school house door. It’s not just the kids’ lunch money they’re after; they want the whole school — with free rent, if they can get it. The guys with the big capital insist that the private sector be allowed to work its magic on public education, too. The movement to privatize the public education system, in the form of charter schools, displays what Ravitch considers the true crisis pervading our society: its large and growing gap in wealth. And the fact that they’ve gotten as far as they have has everything to do with what Ravitch considers the true crisis pervading our society – its large and growing gap in wealth.
Of course, in the world of privatization, one simply does not talk about social realities outside the classroom. Poverty among the student body? Why that’s “no excuse” for “failing schools.” For-profit charter schools with high priced executives and right wing foundations pour millions into anti-public school propaganda. A charter advocacy group — Families for Excellent Schools — recently dropped $3.6 million into an advertising campaign in a successful effort to force New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide Success Academy Charter Schools with free rent for three of their schools. The Academy’s founder and chief executive officer makes a salary twice that of the State’s Education Commissioner. Is this heavily moneyed advocacy problematic? It’s just part of the “secret sauce” for educational success that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who recently set the record for number of public school closings, says the private sector has. (Subsequent examination of the sauce determined that the secret ingredient was, in fact, campaign contributions.)
The privatizers have been on the offensive for pretty much the entirety of the 21st century, starting with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Ravitch considers its “100 percent proficiency” requirement “an impossible goal,” noting, “no nation in the world has ever achieved this, nor has any other nation ever passed legislation to punish its schools for not reaching an unattainable goal.” Once a supporter, she now realizes the law “fed the privatization frenzy. The over reliance on and misuse of testing and data have fed a sense of crisis, lending credibility to claims that American education is failing and in decline,” a drive that has almost seamlessly morphed into the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program.
As a measure of the absurdity of the federal government’s approach, Ravitch suggests we imagine a comparable discussion on crime. Crime is a terrible thing. There should be no crime in America. What, then, if we passed a law requiring every American community to be crime-free in 12 years?
Any city that did not meet the goal would be punished […] its police stations would be closed and privatized; its police officers would lose their badges. The first to close would be the police stations in the poorest neighborhoods, where crime rates were highest. Eventually the scythe would swing even in affluent neighborhoods, because no city is completely crime-free.
In the reality of education, no state has ever met the NCLB target. In fact, Ravitch notes, in “Massachusetts [...] the state with the nation’s highest-performing students as judged by federal tests, 80 percent of the state’s public schools were ‘failing’ by NCLB standards in 2012.”
Ravitch devotes considerable attention to Waiting for Superman, the 2010 documentary that “made the central points that public education was failing, that resources don’t matter and that the best ways to fix the crisis of low test scores were to expand the number of privately managed charters, fire ineffective teachers, and weaken the unions that protected them.” She credits the film, and the attendant publicity — financed handsomely by the Gates Foundation and others — with providing “the charter school movement with a degree of public visibility it never had” and burnishing “the claim by charter school advocates that they were involved in ‘the civil rights issue of our time.’”
When I attended St. Athanasius Elementary School in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, our eighth grade teacher, Sister Acquin, forbade any of us from going to Morris, the district public high school. The school’s reputation had recently taken a bit of a hit, as I recall, when a student was shot on the doorstep. I don’t know that Sister Acquin had any way of enforcing her edict — except for fear of the Lord — but as far as I know she succeeded: most kids went to Catholic high schools, and those who went to public schools took one of the other options that existed in the system. So when Geoffrey Canada, whose childhood memory is the source of the title Waiting for Superman, mentions in the film that Morris was the district high school for his neighborhood too, I had no trouble understanding the source of his motivation for doing something about the dismal options facing many students.
Neither Canada nor I ultimately went to Morris. (General Colin Powell did, though, apparently emerging well prepared for a life of conflict on a global level.) I went to a Catholic high school, and Canada went to live with his mother’s parents on Long Island and attended high school there. I understand that he has gone on to do many fine things in his work with the Harlem Children’s Zone, although I don’t know that our similar experiences of avoiding Morris can be thought of as an adequate basis for formulating educational policy.
Waiting for Superman follows the families of five New York City children hoping to enroll in privately managed charter schools, attempting to avoid the Morris’s of today. (Morris itself closed in 2002.) Ravitch sees the film as having played a crucial role in directing discussion “away from the controversial issue of privatization to the ideologically appealing concept of choice,” allowing “the new movement for privatization [...] to transcend its tarnished history as an escape route for southern whites who sought to avoid court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.”
A measure of the depth of the American right wing’s commitment to charter schools is the $164 million that the Walton Family Foundation spent on “K-12 education reform” in 2013. The foundation derives its revenue from Walmart, the doggedly anti-union retail chain that advises its employees how to supplement their inadequate income with taxpayer-funded benefits. The foundation estimates it has made grants to one of every four charter start-ups in the country.
Ravitch systematically picks apart the presentation of Waiting for Superman, starting with its fundamental assumptions. As an example, she cites its misinterpretation of a national reading test to claim “that 70 percent of eighth-grade students could not read at grade level,” when a proper interpretation would have been 24 percent. She notes as well that “Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, makes the same error in her promotional materials for her advocacy group called StudentsFirst.” There is more than a little irony in Rhee repeating this error. After all, Rhee, who is lionized in the film — actually shown firing a principal — is known for assessing teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores.
Other prominent charter supporters come in for some well-deserved criticism as well: “Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has said,” Ravitch writes,
that when he went to school, there were forty students in each class, and if it was in his power to redesign the school system, he would cut the number of teachers in half, “weed out all the bad ones,” double class size, and double the pay of the remaining teachers. He maintained that to “double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.”
Before asking whether anyone in Bloomberg’s social set would “buy” that, it is worth asking how likely it is that any of them have kids in schools with classes of 50 or 60 kids. Why not? Because, as Ravitch writes, “The Institute of Education Sciences of the US Department of Education has identified class size reduction as one of the few evidence-based reforms that has proven effective.” She also notes, “The catalogs of the best private schools seldom fail to mention their 12:1 ratio of students to teachers, or even 8:1.”
Another of the “reformers’” favorite tools that fails to pass Ravitch’s laugh test is merit pay, which she calls a “faith-based policy.” This faith turns out to be something of an old-time religion. In 1918, she reports, 48 percent of the nation’s school districts had some form of merit pay. Five years later it was down to 33 percent, 18 percent five years after that, and “by 1953 only 4 percent of cities with a population over thirty thousand offered merit pay” — all of this decline occurring in a period when there were not that many teachers’ unions. As American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker once put it, “Let me get this clear. If you offer teachers more money, the students will work harder and get better grades?”
At this point it may surprise you to find that Ravitch is not totally opposed to charter schools and notes that Shanker actually “was a founding father of the charter school movement” when the idea was that teachers would be freed from regulations and come up with their own programs for involving disengaged students. He turned against the movement when a private, for-profit company took over the management of nine Baltimore schools, and fired para-professionals making $10 an hour with benefits and replaced them with college graduates making $7 an hour with no benefits — an appropriate early example of the reality behind the rhetoric
For Ravitch, “One of the most disheartening aspects of the current reform movement is its disdain for the education profession.” As a result, she finds, “Some of the worst education policies today, especially those that rely exclusively on standardized testing, have been imposed by non-educators who were wrongly hired as state or city commissioners of education.” She recounts a telling story of an ice cream company executive brought in to conduct in-service training for Indiana educators. Because People magazine had named his blueberry ice cream the “Best Ice Cream in America,” he must have insight on running any organization from an ice cream factory to a school. Indeed, he explained to the teachers that “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business for long.”
“Zero defects! TQM [total quality management]! Continuous improvement!” as he later recalled. During the Q&A period a teacher asked him, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?
In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap [...] I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.
“I send them back.”
“That’s right,” the teacher replied, “and we can never send back our blueberries [...] We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s a school!” That man had an epiphany that day and went on to learn “that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities that they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing schools, it means changing America.
And that is the crux. Geoffrey Canada and I each found our way to keep from going to Morris. The Catholic schools I went to had their way of not becoming like Morris — if you didn’t toe the line, they could kick your behind out and you could go to PS 48 or Morris, which would have to take you in. The charter school theory operates on much the same basis: pick the students whose home lives are together enough that there is someone there willing and able to seek out a school placement, and you’ll leave the worst blueberries behind. Ravitch notes a 2012 General Accountability Office finding “that while 11 percent of students in the nation have disabilities, charter schools enroll only 8 percent,” numbers she suspects mask a greater disparity in that “most charters are concentrated in urban districts, where the proportion of students with disabilities is significantly higher than 11 percent.” And if you don’t think a 50 percent — or maybe a 100 percent — increase in the number of special ed kids matters, well, come to school some time.
Ravitch does have answers, answers that start before school children are even born, with good prenatal care for every pregnant woman, and include universal high-quality early childhood education, adequate social services, poverty reduction programs, reduced racial segregation, and keeping education governance in the hands of educators and elected officials rather than for-profit corporations. In other words, as the blueberry ice cream man learned, “fixing” America’s schools “means changing America.”
Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco.