On September 17th, just one day after a comparatively poorly-attended “Teacher Town Hall” hosted by Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and George Parker at Temple University, Diane Ravitch spoke to a full auditorium—and via simulcast to a section of overflow seating populated with audience members who didn’t get a seat at the sold-out event—at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Dr. Ravitch’s presence in the city, which is a hotbed for political, economic, and social debates that center around the city’s troubled school system, was celebrated by thousands of educators—both those who were able to attend the event and those who weren’t. Ravitch was introduced by Randi Weingarten, Ravitch’s friend of many years and President of the American Federation of Teachers, who has spent a significant amount of time in Philadelphia in recent weeks to defend the city’s public school teachers from attacks on the profession that are all too common across the country–and to support the PFT’s efforts to negotiate a meaningful contract with the School Reform Commission, which has cut thousands of teachers and support staff, closed buildings, and asked teachers to take pay cuts of up to 13%.
When she took the podium, Ravitch, who is 75 years old, spoke with the energy and passion of a much younger woman–energy and passion no doubt partially derived from the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the release of her book. Her speech, which like Reign of Error itself was prefaced by quotes from John Dewey and John Adams about the importance of a public education system that is supported by all citizens, drew verbal expressions of assent and applause for its systematic, organized, and common-sense debunking of the claims corporate reformers make about the state of America’s system of public education. There is no chapter in Reign of Error that is irrelevant or less important than another (Ravitch addresses virtually every issue at the center of the educational debate, including specific effects poverty has on academic achievement, the overuse/manipulation of test scores, the “achievement gap” and its causes, teacher quality/seniority/tenure/merit pay, Teach for America, vouchers, and mass school closings), and Dr. Ravitch devotes the last thirteen chapters of her book to specific solutions which, if implemented, will undoubtedly improve public education for all of the country’s children.
Of particular interest to the Philadelphia crowd was Dr. Ravitch’s discussion of charter schools, the proliferation of which has had crippling economic effects on traditional public schools in the School District of Philadelphia. Ravitch devotes a chapter of Reign of Error to “The Contradictions of Charters,” and in it she describes former AFT President Albert Shanker as a “founding father of the charter school movement” (156), which he initially thought would be a solution for educating students who had difficulties in traditional public schools—an idea he ultimately abandoned when he realized that charters were contributing to privatization efforts.
In “The Contradictions of Charters,” Dr. Ravitch references examples of unfair admissions practices of charters around the country—and, specifically, a few in Philadelphia—to highlight enrollment procedures that allow charter schools to grant admission to only students whom the charters deem will be academically successful (and thus will give the appearance that the school is more successful than traditional public schools in the area). Ravitch also mentions Philadelphia’s failed “privatization experiment” (circa 2002, after the 2001 state takeover of the district), the many city charters which have been investigated by the federal government, and, of course, the general, widespread criticism that charters enroll many fewer students with disabilities than do traditional public schools.
In the same chapter, Dr. Ravitch also references Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District (which, geographically, is only a short drive from Philadelphia) as an example of public schools damaged by the expansion of for-profit charters. In Chester Upland, Ravitch notes,
“a charter school operated by the governor’s biggest campaign contributor absorbed half the district’s children. The owner of the for-profit corporation that manages the charter school receives nearly $16 million annually in fees for goods and services” (177-178).
Not surprisingly, the Chester Upland district is virtually bankrupt, and, as in Philadelphia, its public school students have suffered immensely—largely due to Governor Corbett’s willingness to put political interests ahead of the interests of the district’s children.
Also noteworthy, and particularly relevant to the Philadelphia crowd, is Dr. Ravitch’s chapter entitled “Trouble in E-land,” which disproves claims that virtual schools make learning more meaningful and accessible for students—and instead exposes virtual schools as profit-making enterprises that are much less effective than traditional teachers in traditional schools. According to Ravitch, Pennsylvania and Ohio maintain the biggest online charter networks in the country, despite the fact that a 2011 Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes study of Pennsylvania charters showed that “100% of cyber-charters performed significantly worse than traditional public schools in both reading and math” (193). Once again, money for which starved public schools are desperate is being diverted to for-profit enterprises that hurt student learning and achievement.
During her speech in Philadelphia, Dr. Ravitch insisted that she isn’t opposed to all charters, noting that those which seek to serve children with disabilities or other special needs can be successful if they operate in conjunction with their traditional public counterparts. But she ultimately acknowledged that such schools are exceptions rather than the norm, and as such, charter expansion has an ongoing responsibility for the damage it has inflicted on so many traditional public schools. “The Contradiction of Charters” concludes with the observation that
“Albert Shanker’s worst fears have been realized. The charter movement has become a vehicle for privatization of large swaths of public education, ending democratic control of public schools and transferring them to private management. The charters seek to compete, not collaborate, with public schools” (178).
What’s most unfortunate is that the troubles Dr. Ravitch discussed in Philadelphia—which seemed so real, immediate, and personal to those who attended her event at the city’s Free Library—are realities in school districts all over the country. When I spoke with Randi Weingarten after the event, she echoed that sentiment, since she sees evidence of it first-hand all too frequently. But most moving was Weingarten’s description of the decades-long relationship she has had with Diane Ravitch as a metaphor for what productive dialogue about education should look like; the two have disagreed fundamentally on some issues over the years, but the mutual respect and admiration they have for one another allows them to work in concert toward the common goal they share: preserving and improving public education for all the nation’s children. If only more people who have some differing views on ways to improve public education could have a similar attitude, approach, openness, and willingness to work together.
Ultimately, in the face of politicians’, billionaires’, and corporations’ goals to privatize our country’s public school system, Reign of Error has emerged as what Dr. Ravitch described to me, when she signed my copy of the book, as the “game-changer” for which public school advocates have been so desperate. Perhaps more importantly, Dr. Ravitch represents hope for all the teachers, students, and parents who have been demoralized and discouraged by the destructive forces we’re all working so hard to fight.