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The Education of Diane Ravitch

Should public schools fear billionaires? Is Finland a poster nation? An interview with the nation's leading education historian.

| Thu Mar. 10, 2011 1:10 PM EST

When I called education historian Diane Ravitch last week to ask her MoJo readers' questions, she was on the other line with producers from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stewart, whose mother worked for years as a teacher, was about to do a segment on Wisconsin and "the greed" of public school teachers; the show needed a guest who could add context to Fox News pundit clips in which financial sector workers earning $250,000 a year could barely pay their mortgages, but teachers earning $50,000 a year with benefits were overpaid. Ravitch—a surprising, prominent, conservative voice in the education debate—didn't disappoint. Between Stewart and Ravitch, the resulting Daily Show segment delivers a stinging rebuke to those who'd strip public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights.

Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush's administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important "fact-checking" on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.

Ravitch's most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, critiques No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the punitive uses of testing to fire teachers and close schools. She spends a chapter on the growing power of a few foundations—like Gates, Broad, and Walton—that she argues are reforming schools at an unprecedented degree without adequate local input. Critics of Ravitch say that—calls for better curriculum, child health care, and increased funding for early childhood education notwithstanding—she doesn't offer alternative solutions for education policy makers.

Mother Jones spoke with Ravitch about teacher tenure, No Child Left Behind, and for-profit charter schools.

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Mother Jones: What is your greatest concern about the direction of public education in the next ten years?

Diane Ravitch: The advance of privatization and a renewed push for vouchers. That we will actually go backwards in this country and that the public education system will become a dumping ground for kids who didn't make it into charters. That we'll see in many cities a degradation of public education. That there will be charters skimming off gifted and high-performing kids and we'll create a two-track system.

MJ: Would you support charters, if we got rid of for-profit charters and only had non-profit charters?

"We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit's first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children."

DR: We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit's first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.

But even on non-profits, there should be a cap on salaries, so that the operator can't be paid a lot more than the average salary of the public system.

I support charters, but the right kind of charters. I support charters that support kids who have the highest needs. A charter should be targeting students who are in serious trouble. It should serve students who didn't succeed in public schools when it can help them. Or, at least, charters should agree to accept similar proportions of the kids with the highest needs.

Charters should be subject to the same rules governing conflicts of interest and nepotism that apply to public schools, and they should go through the same financial auditing. In New York State the Charter School Association went to court to prevent the public auditing of their books, and said as charters, they should be free of that. But they get public money. How can you be free of auditing? They say they do their own auditing. That's not enough.

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