The War on Public Schools

March 8, 2022
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The War on Public Schools

The War on Public Schools

The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state. All these buildings, all these physical classrooms—why, with all the technology you have?

That technology can do what teachers do, that a laptop—if the kid has one—on the kitchen table can replace attending school with other students—it’s like the funhouse mirror version of the lesson many are taking from the crisis.

To whom does such a vision appeal? If participation in Cuomo’s scheme to “Reimagine Education” is any indication, it’s not educators. But will that be enough to stop it?

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and co-founder and president of the Network for Public Education. She’s author of numerous books, most recently Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, out now from Knopf. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Diane Ravitch.

The War on Public SchoolsDiane Ravitch: Thank you, wonderful to be with you.

JJ: Well, Cuomo’s office backpedaled a bit. An aide tweeted, “Teachers are heroes & nothing could ever replace in-person learning.” Meanwhile, they added Eric Schmidt, the [former] head of Google, to the team, whose lead player is Bill Gates. The people now pushing to “Reimagine Education” in the midst of the pandemic, these are the same people—and reflect the worldview—that, for some 20 years now, has been calling itself education reform. And media, too, call people like Bill Gates “reformers.” You have a different name. Tell us about that.

DR: In my book, Slaying Goliath, I refer to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and all these tech titans, and Wall Street and on and on, as disruptors. They have lots of ideas about how to reinvent and reimagine American education. It always involves privatization. It always attacks public control, and democratic control, of schools. And it very frequently involves technology, because what they’re interested in is cutting the cost of education, and the most expensive aspect of public education is teachers.

And also, from a different point of view, the most important part of education is teachers, because I think that we’ve learned during this pandemic that sitting in front of a screen is not the same as being in a classroom with a human being.

So Cuomo has presented New York, and also the nation, with a real dilemma, which is: Are we prepared to make this emergency remote learning into a permanent thing, and maybe give it a happier name? They call it “personalized learning.” But if there’s anything that’s impersonal, it’s sitting in front of a computer for your lessons.

JJ: Yeah.

This reform that, as you note, was always about privatization and, folks will know, standardized tests, teaching to tests, evaluating teachers and schools based on those tests. It was also, or has been, marketed as being in particular good for poor kids, and for black and brown kids, and saving them from what we’re always told were “failing schools.”

But you can see something appealing about standardization. It seems to say, “Well, you can’t keep this black kid out, or you can’t keep this poor kid out, because a 95 on the test is a 95 on the test.” But it doesn’t work that way. It hasn’t worked that way.

DR: No, it hasn’t worked. It’s actually been a tremendous failure. The effort to standardize people always fails, because we’re all very different. We all have different things we’re interested in, different abilities to be cultivated, different passions, and a good teacher knows how to bring out the best in all kids. A machine is simply a machine.

And I don’t think if you look back over the past decade, where these so-called reformers have been promoting standardized testing and using tests for everything, to evaluate teachers, having Common Core Standards where everybody in the country is allegedly learning the same thing at the same minute, we haven’t seen any change whatsoever, if we look at test scores. The scores have been flat on the only measures we have that are outside the manipulation of politicians. And that is, we have a national test called the NAEP, National Assessment of Educational Progress. The scores on the NAEP, since we’ve had Common Core and since we’ve been trying to standardize everybody and everything, have been completely flat. So we’ve managed to standardize flatness and mediocrity, and it’s been a disaster.

We’ve also seen, and I think this may be one of the most troubling aspects of this era, a dramatic decline in the number of people wanting to become teachers. The enrollments in teacher education programs, whether they’re graduate programs or professional programs, even undergraduate programs, have simply collapsed. And many institutions have lost a third to 40% or even more of their prospective students. And this is because we’ve been through an era of saying that education can be standardized and turned into a mechanical thing, and that teachers are test proctors rather than teachers.

Teachers want to see the faces of the children. They want to see that they’re having an impact, they want to be able to encourage children face to face. They want to speak to those kids who need extra help, and give them that extra help. And, unfortunately, computers can’t do that.

I think that if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that parents really don’t want to be teachers; they want to have professionals doing that. And they’ll be very happy to see real schools open again.

I think that Cuomo’s comment that buildings are irrelevant is ridiculous, and the day he decides not to have a governor’s office, and to do his governor’s work from a computer at home, then he can begin to talk about getting rid of schools.

The War on Public SchoolsBut no parent wants to hear that because, frankly, parents have jobs, they want to be able to work, they want to be able to go to their workplace, and everybody is not going to be sheltering in place for the rest of their lives.

So we’re living through what hopefully is a temporary situation; the sooner it ends, the better off we will all be. And when it does end, I hope that we’ve learned about the value of real teachers who are professionally prepared.

WaPo: Cuomo questions why school buildings still exist — and says New York will work with Bill Gates to ‘reimagine education’
Washington Post (5/6/20)

JJ: The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noted that Cuomo’s remarks drew “rebuke from teachers and others who have lived through Gates-funded education reforms.” And I like that language, because it’s not just a vision thing, and it’s not just opinion; as you’ve just stated, even though, as with so-called Common Core Standards, Gates paid for the creation of the thing, he paid for the implementation and he paid for its evaluation, these interventions still failed by their own criteria.

DR: You know, this is the great irony of Bill Gates. He’s got more money than almost anyone in the world. I think Jeff Bezos has more money than he does now. But he’s a guy who’s worth well more than $100 billion. He can do whatever he wants to do, and there are no consequences, and there’s no accountability for his failures.

And he’s—from what I gather, I’m not in the public health field—I hear that he’s done good things in public health. He has done horrible things in education. Everything he has undertaken in education has been intrusive. It’s been a failure. It has discouraged teachers. It’s actually hurt the kids that he intends to help. It’s done nothing to improve the lot of very poor kids. And it has advanced the narrative of privatization.

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You have to understand that for 20 years and more, really since 1983, when Reagan was president, there has been this narrative that our public schools are failing, and something dramatic needs to happen, throw something at the wall.

I frequently ask people, “If our public schools are failing, how did we get to be the most powerful nation in the world?” But the war on the public schools continues, only now it’s considered reinvention; it’s called reform, but there’s nothing reform about it, it’s simply disruption.

JJ: It’s interesting: Gates acknowledges that his experiments didn’t go as he thought. He sort of shrugs and moves on, which he’s in a position to do. It’s teachers and students, of course, who are the ones in the wreckage, which, as you’ve noted, involves whipsawing government policy, overturning curricula, money being redirected from other things. These experiments from billionaires have costs that they leave behind.

DR: There are many billionaires, they’re not as rich as he is, but they’ve done tremendous damage. I have a chapter in my most recent book in which I simply list the billionaires and the major corporations that have funded these attacks on public education.

The War on Public SchoolsAnd we all know Betsy DeVos is the mistress of destruction. And she is, right now, using money that was appropriated to save public schools that are in tremendous trouble. And she’s urging states to split the money with private schools. Well, no one ever authorized public funding of private schools using the coronavirus relief funds, but that’s what she’s promoting.

But she’s only one of literally scores of billionaires, and you can find them in almost every state, who decided—even though they have no knowledge or expertise in education—that education should be privatized, because in private hands, somehow it will be better. And we now have a wealth of experience and research and studies that show that privately managed schools, and voucher schools in particular, are worse than public schools.

JJ: I learned on your blog, DianeRavitch.net, that Betsy DeVos spoke admiringly of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous comments about how people blame society for things, but there’s no such thing as society, just “individual men and women and families.” A secretary of Education, someone in charge of public education, who says “there’s no such thing” as society. That’s just very Trump administration, I guess.

DR: Yes. And what’s ironic is right now, during a time of national and international crisis, there’s, I think, a fairly broad understanding: We’re all in this together, and we need leadership, we need society. We each alone, with our families, cannot develop a vaccine. We cannot fund the research that’s necessary to end this pandemic. We need a functioning government that actually believes in science, and that is willing to take the lead in telling people how they must act in order to protect themselves. So for our own health, safety and survival, we need society.

So when Margaret Thatcher and then Betsy DeVos says there’s no such thing as society, they’re speaking as people who live on little islands. I don’t know Margaret Thatcher’s reason, but Betsy DeVos, being a billionaire, can retreat from all of this, and protect herself from any interaction with the rest of the world. The rest of us can’t. We need the world, we need society.

JJ: You say something dramatic needs to happen. I think folks may remember: In 2010, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” “That education system was a disaster,” he said, “and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say we have to do better.”

Newsweek at the time told its readers:

Since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public school system was wiped out. Using nonunion charter schools, New Orleans has been able to measure teacher performance in ways that the teachers’ unions have long and bitterly resisted.

It’s hard not to hear those shock doctrine echoes of Katrina in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s just too appealing an opportunity, it seems, to step in when folks are reeling, as we are. But you think the disruptors are on their last gasp?

DR: What I wrote, and I believe, is that the public supports public schools overwhelmingly, that even where there are multiple charters and it’s easy to leave public schools, most kids are still in public schools. In states where there are vouchers that are freely available, very few kids are taking them. And you have legislators, like in Ohio and in Florida and in Arizona, pushing vouchers, pushing charters.

And what my organization that works for public education has discovered through doing research is the charters are very unstable. They are not transparent about either their academics or their finances. And they open and close with great regularity. There are some states now that have more charters closing than there are charters opening.

And Congress has given Betsy DeVos a fund of $440 million every year to open new charter schools, and she favors the big corporate chains. So this means that a chain with 200 charters can come into a neighborhood, open a charter school and drive the public school out of business. And it’s not doing it because it’s offering better education. It’s doing it because it’s separating out the kids it wants from the kids that it doesn’t want, and that’s not the role of public education.

The War on Public SchoolsCharters are not public schools, vouchers are not public schools. They should not be publicly funded. Public money should go to public schools that have elected school boards, or that have oversight and accountability to the public, which neither charters nor vouchers do.

The claim for vouchers from DeVos is, “Well, why can’t poor kids choose? Because, after all, rich kids choose.” Well, rich kids are choosing because their parents are paying $30- or $40- or $50,000 to go to an elite private school. Poor kids are getting a voucher worth $5- or $6,000, and going to very poor, mostly religious schools, where teachers are usually not certified and the quality of education is very poor.

So I think what frightens me is that if these people get their way—and we have a very conservative Supreme Court that’s on the cusp of ruling that states are not allowed to deny funding to religious schools—we will see this country go backwards educationally, because having a strong public school system is a pillar of democracy. A public school system that’s open to all kids, that doesn’t push out kids because they can’t speak English, that doesn’t exclude the kids because they have disabilities, and that has a full program, and doesn’t indoctrinate kids into a religious point of view: This is what made America great, and because of the people like DeVos and Trump, and the Bill Gateses and other billionaires in the world who are funding all this privatization stuff, we can see our country go backwards. And that’s what’s frightening.

JJ: Finally, it’s galling to see the Gates Foundation issuing a response to complaints about this New York initiative, saying, “We believe that teachers have an important perspective that needs to be heard,” as though that were a gracious concession. But then, media and others still hanging on to this notion that riches equal expertise, and pretending that we don’t know what actually works. If I see another report about, “Hey, there was a study that said kids do better in smaller-sized classes”—we know this. It’s just about who they listen to. What would you like to see more of, or less of, in terms of education reporting?

Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch: “”I would like to see them expose this hoax that somehow, promoting privatization benefits the neediest children, when, in fact, privatization hurts the neediest children.”

DR: The scary thing about the pandemic is that every school system in the country is going to be faced with dramatic budget cuts. And what I would like to see reporters focused on is the funding, and the funding should be, not following the child—I mean, this is what Betsy DeVos wants, and what all the right-wingers want, is to see the funding diverted to wherever the child goes. If they go to religious schools, the money goes there. If they homeschool, the money goes there. This is public money; this is our taxpayer dollars—and it should go to public institutions.

I would like to see reporters understand that children learn best when they have human teachers and when they have interaction with their peers.

And I would like to see them follow the money. Who is funding the charter movement? I know who’s funding it, read my book: It’s mainly the Walton Foundation, which hates unions, and which is responsible for one out of every four charter schools in the country. I would like to see them follow the money to the extent of saying, “What really matters is that kids have small enough classes”—and the research on small class size is overwhelming—and I would like to see them expose this hoax that somehow, promoting privatization benefits the neediest children, when, in fact, privatization hurts the neediest children.

And they need to look at the research, the research on increased segregation and the defunding of the schools where the poorest kids attend. This has now grown overwhelming.

And when Betsy DeVos publicly urges the states to split the money between low-income public schools and high-income private schools, this is sick, and it should be reported as a disgrace. And so many disgraceful things are happening in education, and the reporters need to be all over it.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Diane Ravitch; she blogs at DianeRavitch.net. The latest book is Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. It’s out now from Knopf. Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Diane Ravitch.

DR: Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure.

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