ANNOTATION: Diane Ravitch’s Problematic Polemics

Diane Ravitch is a former education historian and federal education official who in recent years has become a leading defender of public education’s traditional policies and practices, and a determined critic of the prevailing strategies for strengthening the effectiveness and efficiency of the nation’s $600 billion public schooling system. In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books titled When Public Goes Private, as Trump Wants: What Happens?, Ravitch, 78, summarizes her opposition to the school reform movement and the Trump administration’s education policies. Below, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch analyses key sections of Ravitch’s essay. 

Privatization means that a public service is taken over by a for-profit business, whose highest goal is profit. Investors expect a profit when a business moves into a new venture….

For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves “reformers” to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to “reform”? These days, those who call themselves “education reformers” are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators.

State and local educators make up by far the largest proportion of today’s school reformers. Reformers have pointed to a lack of incentives to improve in traditional government-run public school systems as a core problem, and they have sought in a variety of ways to create more competitive, performance-driven systems. Ravitch opposes this strategy and has sought to discredit it by falsely characterizing the reform movement as an attack on local communities by rich outsiders.

The “reform” movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.

 Ravitch is taking about charter schools here. Above, she puts pursuit of profit at the center of her definition of “privatization.” Here, she paints a wide range of nonprofit organizations with her privatization brush. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools, but half those states forbid for-profit organizations from running charters. 

In early September, Donald Trump declared his commitment to privatization of the nation’s public schools. He held a press conference at a low-performing charter school in Cleveland run by a for-profit entrepreneur. He announced that if elected president, he would turn $20 billion in existing federal education expenditures into a block grant to states, which they could use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. These are funds that currently subsidize public schools that enroll large numbers of poor students.

 There are many people in the choice movement who want to give parents more public-school options but who oppose spending public monies to pay private school tuitions, as Ravitch well knows. 

Like most Republicans, Trump believes that “school choice” and competition produce better education, even though there is no evidence for this belief.

Ravitch’s defense of traditional public schools is hard to square with the poor results of many school systems. The charter school sector has brought many talented educators and innovative school models to public education, while giving families many more high quality educational options. And contrary to Ravitch’s claim, choice has incentivized innovation and improvement among traditional public schools when competition for students has been introduced into that sector. It has engendered intense competition among charter schools and among charters, traditional public schools, and parochial schools (in some cities, charter schools have drawn substantial numbers of students from parochial schools). That said, the quality of charter schools has varied widely, and a growing number of charter advocates have pushed for greater academic and financial accountability within the sector. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not supported strong accountability for either charter schools or voucher schools, a stance that could substantial diminish support for school choice. 

As president, Trump will encourage competition among public and private providers of education, which will reduce funding for public schools.

“Public schools,” to Ravitch, are traditional government-owned and operated schools. But charter schools are also public schools—funded by and accountable to taxpayers.

No high-performing nation in the world has privatized its schools.

The U.S. has not turned over its entire educational system to private providers, as Ravitch implies it has. Rather, it has allowed educators who don’t work for traditional school systems to operate some 6,000 publicly funded charter schools (out of about 100,000 elementary and secondary schools). About 12 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit entities. And some 400,000 students are attending private schools with public support, out of a total school population of about 50 million.

The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as “government schools,” hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning “education industry.” The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, “We want to privatize public schools.” They say, “We want to save poor children from failing schools.” Therefore, “We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,” and “We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.”

Ravitch continues to conflate “choice” with “privatization” in an effort to undermine choice. There are many types of school choice beyond vouchers and for-profit school management. In New York City, where Ravitch lives, the public school system’s roughly 79,000 eighth-graders select from more than 600 public high school options under a “mandatory choice” system, and the vast majority of students get one of their top three picks.

The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives.

It’s true that there are influential conservative supporters of the for-profit education, DeVos among them. But there are also many centrists and many Democrats who support charter schools and other forms of choice. The Clinton and Obama administrations were among those supporters, as Ravitch acknowledges below.

Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success.

True. But they are hardly the only organizations studying school choice. A more balanced accounting of school choice suggests that the charter school movement has provided more educational options to meet students’ individual needs. It has drawn new educator talent into public education. It has engendered instructional innovation. It has jolted complacent school districts. And, in some instances, it has produced great educational results.It’s also true that the best charters tend to be clustered in states where it is hardest to get and keep a charter, like Massachusetts. And the results have been worst in states that favor charter school autonomy over public accountability, places like Secretary DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where she lobbied against accountability for charter schools. The under-regulated, on-line charter sector is also problematic. So Ravitch is partly right on charters, but that’s not a reason to abandon the clear benefits of properly regulated charter schooling. Vouchers are another story. There’s simply not much independent research to suggest vouchers as a source of fair, effective school choice at scale.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures. Every Republican governor and legislature has passed legislation for charters and vouchers. About half the states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for nonpublic schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans.

Ravitch is again inferring that all charter schools are run by for-profit entities, when in fact charters are “privately managed” by universities, local civil rights agencies, and many other nonprofit organizations under government-sanctioned charters.

In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

Both good things for students. But not good for Ravitch’s close allies, the nation’s teacher unions, which are opposed to both public school accountability and charter schools, which are largely non-unionized.

In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools.

Only two additional states green-lighted charters schools during the eight years of the Obama presidency, Washington and Alabama.

As thousands of neighborhood public schools were closed, charter schools opened to take their place.

Many more charter schools opened than traditional public schools closed during that period; the causal relationship Ravitch suggests largely did not exist.

Today,there are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls.

Not very many. Lots are in former parochial school buildings.

Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money.

Yes. The online sector has been particularly problematic, educationally and fiscally. But the problem isn’t charter schools per se, because there are some very good charters, many of them in public education deserts, neighborhoods with terrible traditional public schools. Rather, the challenge is striking a balance between autonomy and accountability, as many charter school advocates have argued. If there is a worry with the Trump administration, it is that it will unwind recent efforts to strengthen accountability, making school choice more vulnerable to critics like Ravitch

Charters open and close with disturbing frequency; from 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties, while others opened. Charters have several advantages over regular public schools: They can admit the students they want, exclude those they do not want, and push out the ones who do not meet their academic or behavioral standards.

This is false. Laws in most states require charter schools to admit every student who applies and to admit students by lottery if schools are oversubscribed. Some charter schools do work around these requirement by targeting their recruitment or counseling out applicants and admitted students who struggle academically or behaviorally. Where it happens, this “enrollment management” presents serious equity problems that some leaders in the charter sector are working to address. Louisiana officials, for example, have taken strong steps to make the charter sector in New Orleans fair to all students.

Even though some public schools have selective admissions, the public school system must enroll every student, at every point in the school year. Typically, charter schools have smaller numbers of students whose native language is not English and smaller numbers of students with serious disabilities as compared to neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools educate disproportionate percentages of students of color.

Both charters and vouchers drain away resources from the public schools, even as they leave the neediest, most expensive students to the public schools to educate.

Again, charter schools are public schools.

Competition from charters and vouchers does not improve public schools, which still enroll 94 percent of all students; it weakens them.

Greater numbers of affordable, high-quality educational options are a plus for disadvantaged students trapped in failing traditional public schools. But adding high-quality educational capacity while simultaneously undermining the existing educational infrastructure doesn’t produce a net benefit from a policy perspective. Creating choice systems that encourage a demand for and a supply of performance-based schooling options for all students, not merely a more talented or more savvy minority, is the single largest challenge facing American elementary and secondary education today.

Charter schools often call themselves “public charter schools,” but when they have been challenged in federal or state court or before the National Labor Relations Board, charter corporations insist that they are private contractors, not “state actors” like public schools, and therefore are not bound to follow state laws.

Charter schools must follow safety, anti-discrimination and many other state laws.

As private corporations, they are exempt from state labor laws and from state laws that govern disciplinary policies.

Many charter schools are allowed to operate outside of school districts regulations and collective bargaining agreements to allow them greater freedom in staffing, instruction, and organization, things that most school experts says are keys to school success.

About 93 percent of charter schools are nonunion, as are virtually all voucher schools. In most charter schools, young teachers work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week. Teacher turnover is high, given the hours and intensity of the work.

Burnout is a challenge for many charter schools, especially those with the highest standards and greatest commitment to serving students successfully. But one wonders whether Ravitch would prefer disengaged teachers working to the clock under collective-bargaining contracts
to educators voluntarily working long hours on behalf of their students.

For the complete Ravitch essay, go to