Make no mistake: America’s public schools, an indispensable component of our religiously neutral (that is, secular) democracy, are under serious siege. Hordes of pseudo-reformers, privatizers, voucherizers, charterizers, hucksters, snake-oil salespersons, privateers, wealthy right-wing foundations, billionaire busybodies, hijackers, conservative ideologues, religious Right gurus, political hacks, assorted noneducators, and media toadies are working day and night to undermine, weaken, and destroy our public schools. Collateral damage from these campaigns will include serious harm to religious freedom, our heritage of church-state separation, and community harmony in our increasingly diverse society. The tsunamis of funds spent on lobbying and influencing elections by these privatizers dwarf to insignificance the paltry sums spent by the teachers’ unions on advocacy for children and teachers.
Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of the important 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, spells this out in fine, well-documented detail in her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Alfred A. Knopf). This may well be the most important single book on education in decades.
Ravitch shows how the pseudo-reformers wrongly portray our schools as “failing” when the reality is that they have been making steady progress, despite being inadequately and inequitably funded and despite years of incessant conservative sniping. She shows clearly how the mania for testing, testing, testing undermines education and forces schools to neglect science, history, civics, the arts, and languages in order to concentrate on preparing students for endless useless tests; how vouchers, charter schools, and virtual or cyber schooling are vastly overrated; and how the wholesale closing of public schools in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia damages communities and children. She names names (such as the execrable phony “reformer” Michelle Rhee), identifies the powerful groups undermining public schools, and generally pins the tails on the jackasses working to wreck public education.
Once upon a time, the charge to weaken public education was led by religious campaigners who sought to divert public funds to sectarian private schools—primarily the Catholic bishops. While it is true that many public schools in the United States had something of a Protestant tinge for a long time, this faded as our population became more religiously diverse and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s school prayer and Bible-reading rulings of the early 1960s. Catholic-school enrollment shrank from 5.5 million students in 1965 to about two million today, and this shrinkage has been due to “changing parental preferences” (according to studies that the pro-voucher Nixon administration had done by two Catholic universities) and because Catholic parents have grown more content to have their kids attend religiously neutral public schools. Ravitch spends only one short chapter on this particular phase of the attack on public education. (In August, while Ravitch’s book was in press, the annual Gallup/PDK education poll reported that 70 percent of Americans oppose vouchers. Similar majorities opposed referenda to divert public funds to private schools in twenty-seven state-level elections between 1966 and 2012. All these elections occurred after the Supreme Court ended the remnants of Protestant hegemony.)
Where Ravitch really hits hard is on the charter-school surge. Around 1990, American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker and a few others came up with the idea of “charter schools” as temporary experimental operations working with local public schools to try out methods of helping problem students. The experiment almost immediately turned sour, as private corporatizers latched onto to the idea as a moneymaker, conservative foundations and think tanks “realized that charters were the next best thing to vouchers,” and conservatives saw charters as a way to beat up teacher unions. Both for-profit and nonprofit outfits, many of them sprawling operations crossing state lines, now run chains of charters that compete unfairly with public schools and operate beyond the control of local elected school boards. In June 2013, also too late to make it into Ravitch’s book, the Stanford University CREDO study reported in its second nationwide survey of charter schools that three-fourths of charters are either worse than or no better than regular public schools—this despite their competitive advantage of being able to “skim” students with fewer needs or problems. “Few charters,” Ravitch writes, “want the students for whom charters were first invented.” But today charters have powerful political friends in both parties and are swimming in public money.
I should note at this point that Ravitch’s excellent analysis is strongly supported by social scientists Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine in their 2012 book Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? (Teachers College Press).
Ravitch does not just expose what is wrong with the pseudo-reformers and privatizers; she offers common sense, reasonable, tested ideas for improving the already steadily advancing public schools: serious efforts to alleviate the poverty affecting 25 percent of American children; prenatal care for all pregnant women; high-quality early childhood education for all kids; enriched curricula in all schools; lower class sizes (note that the private schools patronized by the wealthy all have small class sizes); revamping charter schools to their original purpose as locally run community schools run by professional teachers working with, not against, local regular public schools; a full range of medical and social wraparound services; elimination of high-stakes standardized tests; upgrading the teaching profession (as has been done in Finland); and maintaining democratic control of public schools.
A mere discussion of this book cannot begin to cover its riches. It has to be read—by every teacher, administrator, parent, and citizen (liberal, conservative, moderate, whatever) who cares about the future of our country and our children.
As a teacher for years and as an education activist and writer for nearly fifty years, I cannot praise this book too highly. Buy it. Read it. Act on it.