Diane Ravitch's Very Selective Blame Game
Until just a few years ago, no one would have guessed that Diane Ravitch would ever become the unofficial spokesperson for the NEA and AFT’s corporate education empowerment project. Diane was viewed as a conservative historian and policy insider, and as such, she was hostile to union priorities. By 2008, however, Republicans had moved so far Right, with the Democrats in hot pursuit of the same racist voters, that Diane suddenly found herself a liberal by doing nothing other than remaining steadfast to her Republican ideology.
In the days leading up the Republican Party becoming the proudly-racist Tea Party, Ravitch’s conservative historical scholarship had followed the same elitist, happy-talk trails that official education historians like Elwood P. Cubberley blazed in the early 20th Century, when the official education history was told in idealized narratives that celebrated the unquestioned success of American schoolmen, just as it ignored or denied the deeply racist, classist, and unjust containment and miseducation of the non-white, non-male, and non-privileged citizens and immigrants.
Before she traded in Republican ed reform despotism for the Democratic ed reform despotism, Ravitch had defended the Republican brand of corporate education reform as crucial to what she viewed as public education’s continuing perfection project, and she had been a fierce critic of educational historians who pointed to the role of schools in reproducing social and economic inequality. Historians like Joel Spring and Michael Katz she viewed as anarchists and radicals, as their more inclusive and critical views of educational history questioned Ravitch’s romanticized schoolrooms and sunny policy assessments, which masked the institutional racism and paternalistic corporate policies that have, for generations, spawned increasing marketization, oppression, and social control by white elites.
But just over ten years ago, it finally became obvious to Diane Ravitch that her Republican pals were not going to back down from full-on NCLB implementation to label American schools as failures in order to convert as many of them as possible to charter schools. A clip from an NPR story, 2009:
In 2005, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch wrote, "We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act ... All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents' generation."
Four years later, Ravitch has changed her mind.
"I was known as a conservative advocate of many of these policies," Ravitch says. "But I've looked at the evidence and I've concluded they're wrong. They've put us on the wrong track . . .”
Even now, Diane remains unwilling to acknowledge the seminal role she and her old cronies like Checker Finn and Lamar Alexander played and continue to play in the "wrong track" dismantling of public education.
In her recent amnesia-induced commentary on how the U. S. public school system found itself perched on its current precipice, Ravitch’s “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats” puts the responsibility for Trumpist education policy ONLY on the shoulders of Democrats.
Now there’s surely ample blame to be laid at the feet of Wall Street’s Democratic Party for the radical expansion of corporate education reform and paternalistic cram-down practices over the past two decades, but Diane uses her 1,500 word revision of the past 30 year policy history to blame Democrats, exclusively, for the steroidal privatization agenda now being fine-tuned by Trumpists. She now declares, “In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.”
I have pointed out, ad nauseum, that Clintonian Democrats have contributed hugely to the current marketization of public schools and the demolition of the teaching profession, but to put all the blame for Betsy DeVos on Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama is a bridge too far, even for a skilled propagandist and conservative revisionist like Diane Ravitch.
In trying to trace the historical dots of the education privatization plan from Bill Clinton in 1989 to Barack Obama in 2016, Diane leaves out some of the most important players, including Diane Ravitch, herself. Somehow, she even forgets that it was her old boss, Lamar Alexander (R), who co-chaired, with Bill Clinton (D), that Charlottesville conference back in 1989 to which she refers, when America’s most prominent CEOs accepted their education policy roles handed to them by President GHW Bush (R). Soon thereafter, Alexander became Bush I’s Secretary of Education and Diane became his Assistant.
Diane’s new historical gloss omits her own responsibility for how schools became the political whipping boy for elites who use standardized test scores that are, by design, both racist and classist. Diane steers clear of her service to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and her role in quashing the Sandia Report, which provided empirical evidence that the Reagan-inspired myth of public education’s demise was an outright lie.
Nor does Diane mention her collaboration with neocon, Checker Finn, and other paternalist elites during the later 90s to perpetuate the use of skewed NAEP cut scores in order to make student performance nationally look much weaker than it was. Even after scholarly consensus concluded that NAEP proficiency targets were ridiculously out of whack with legitimate statistical practices, NAEP’s governing board on which Diane served continued to prop up the use of NAEP’s flawed cut scores.
Diane also forgets to mention the seminal role played by Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, in operationalizing the school voucher fantasy. After all, it was Reagan’s team that picked Milton Friedman’s racist school voucher “choice” solution as a cure for what Republicans in the 1980s called the “public school monopoly.”
Early on, Reagan declared that Washington had spent way too much money and time during the previous two decades on equity issues and desegregation efforts, which had weakened the public schools to the point that A Nation at Risk (1983) analogized as “unilateral educational disarmament.”
Reagan’s solution for public schools supposedly ruined by the introduction of black children was to demand more racist accountability measures to show that public schools had failed, and to offer public school vouchers that would allow parents the “choice” of segregated private schools if they wished. It was a very clear sign that the widely rumored death of Jim Crow had been entirely exaggerated.
Nor does Diane mention her support for the No Child LeftBehind public education demolition project. Or her role in reviving the national standards movement that she was first involved with in the early 1990s, which became the despised Common Core. Even in the early 2000s, Diane was openly embracing paternalistic values and elite managerial boosterism, and she remained the darling of the Hoover Institution's Koret Taskforce and the Fordham Institute, where Diane served as historian-in-residence for the conservative propaganda hothouses known generously as think tanks.
More importantly and much more recently, Ravitch does not include herself as instrumental in helping Lamar Alexander push NCLB’s successor, ESSA, through Congress. It is that ESSA that she helped to enable that now provides Betsy DeVos the diminished federal oversight and increased funding latitude that will make Trump’s states rights education mission possible to implement.
Diane’s support was crucial in keeping resistance to ESSA’s privatization stimulus plan tamped down among parents and teachers, thus clearing the way for passage. ESSA essentially allows states, two-thirds of which are controlled by Trumpist legislatures, to use federal education money in any way that fascist ideologues like the Koch Brothers and their minions see fit.
So why is bi-political chameleon, Diane Ravitch, now blaming only the Democrats, whom she supported in 2016, while she ignores the principal role of the Republicans that she supported openly before 2010? And why is she ignoring her own contribution and that of the AFT and NEA chiefs, who manipulated teachers to support the Republican-lite corporate charter enthusiast, Hillary Clinton, for whom millions of democratic voters, teachers among them, stayed home in November? Does Diane believe that she can inspire Democrats to alter their ways by ignoring half the story of who’s to blame for the Trumpists?
As Ravitch’s assessment of the education policy history ignores the greater part of the story, so does her preferred policy future, which is boiled down to this sound byte, designed to encapsulate NEA and AFT positions:
The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”
There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.
Really? Are we to achieve anything when we beg to “acknowledge the importance” of real teachers, rather than demanding only professional experienced teachers where they are least seen and most needed? Are Diane’s waffling bromides bathed in wishful thinking what is called for at a juncture when direct action is required to save public institutions like schools from the fascist oligarchs who are lined up to destroy them?
Do we really need another “evidence-based debate” about charter schools? Is there any evidence that has not already been presented that is likely to alter decisions concretized by the billionaires who control the education industry and who have ignored every other piece of evidence so far that does not support their position?
And are charter schools okay if they have certified teachers and have met the membership requirements of NEA/AFT? Does that make them any less of a segregated, inhumane threat to public school sustainability and student well being?
By advancing this kind of continued corporate enabling and corruption disguised as resistance, Diane Ravitch continues to tear down what she would, otherwise, build up. For someone like Diane who has a reputation for allowing almost anyone into her big advocacy tent as long as they bring a donation, it appears uncharacteristically exclusionary for her to leave out so many from so much of the responsibility for our current mess.
As her New Republic commentary ignores so much in order to attribute past blame based on quite meaningless political labels when it comes to education, so do her limp recommendations ignore so much required in order to alter our headlong rush toward the educational cliff:
Diane ignores the clear and present dangers presented by Google, Facebook, and the other predatory tech companies, whose business model demands the massive accumulation of personal data, which are surreptitiously gathered and archived under the pretense of providing children “personalized learning solutions;”
Diane ignores the psychological and physical health dangers imposed by tethering children to computer screens for long stretches of the school day;
Diane ignores the continued drain of over 7,500 charter schools, even if expansion stopped today;
Diane ignores the resegregation of public schools and the inequality that such arrangements guarantee;
Diane ignores the using and discarding of teachers by “no excuses” schools;
Diane ignores the dehumanizing methods used to culturally sterilize children in “no excuses” schools;
Diane ignores the educational dangers of enforcing national standards, national curriculum, and national tests;
Diane ignores the inherent racism and classism of standardized tests, as long as the tests are of “high quality,” whatever that means.