From The Progressive, 1933
Under an intense summer sun in America’s hottest year in recorded history, an assortment of about 800 sign-carrying protesters and rabble-rousers gathered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to declare a victory in the fight over the nation’s education policy.
Since the publication of her best-selling 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch has become the most prominent voice for one side in the “education wars.”
In 2013, The New York Review of Books depicted a stern Ravitch facing off with former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee. The publication described Ravitch and Rhee as “the two faces of American education.”
Rhee, you may remember, was considered by many to be the leader of the movement known as “education reform” that was remaking education policies in big-city districts across the nation. She was featured on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom under the headline, “How to Fix America’s Schools,” demonstrating her desire to sweep school districts clean of supposedly ineffective veteran teachers and stultified education practices.
The “reformers,” as Rhee and her allies came to be called, generally backed mandates to impose new Common Core Standards championed by the Obama Administration, a stringent regime of standardized tests used for rating schools and evaluating teachers, and a rollout of competitive charter schools.
Ravitch dubbed the reform agenda a “reign of error” in her 2013 book by that name, and an alliance of parent groups, public education supporters, and civil rights and community activists also emerged to join with the two national teachers unions and call for a redirection of education policy.
Conflict over public education became especially divisive in the Democratic Party, where dissidents called education policies carried out by the Obama Administration “No Child Left Behind on steroids,” a reference to the federal education act that passed during the George W. Bush Administration, which many believe codified the corporate education reform campaign.
“If you want to look at a really significant ideological divide among Democrats, you should look at education,”
Matthew Yglesias wrote in 2014 when he was at Slate (emphasis in the original).
After years of pitched battle, why do Ravitch and those who agree with her believe their cause is “winning,” and why should progressives care?
One obvious victory for Ravitch’s side is that Rhee has now generally left the public debate, having resigned from her position in Washington, D.C., to start the advocacy group StudentsFirst, which also eventually disappeared in a haze of controversy and unaccomplished goals.
In 2015, the much-reviled No Child Left Behind was rescinded by a bipartisan coalition in Congress, with President Obama’s approval, inciting declarations of a “new era” in education policy.
Ravitch remains, churning out an improbable volume of content on her personal blog—more than 15,000 posts, she reports, that have attracted more than twenty-eight million page views.
But probably the surest sign of who is winning and who is losing a debate is when one side concedes that it is losing.
Take the concessions that recently emerged in an op-ed for USA Today written by two prominent voices firmly entrenched in the reform camp: Richard Whitmire, the author and reform propagandist who wrote a “worshipful,” according to Ravitch, biography of Rhee, and David Osborne, a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute, a politically centrist think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The list of failed school reforms launched . . . is embarrassingly long,” the reform duo declares, listing Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations among “sputtering reforms.”
The “one very big exception” Whitmire and Osborne point to, though, is “high-performing charter schools.” Charters are rightly popular, according to the authors, with both conservatives and liberals believing charter schools “give thousands of poor and minority kids a shot at the American dream.”
The only real obstacle to a full, bipartisan embrace of charters, these advocates argue, is the risk of having presidential contender Donald Trump embracing them as a “rightwing cause” and his rival Hillary Clinton “allowing
. . . charters to drift from the Democratic agenda.”
Whitmire and Osborne aren’t the only reform fans who assume opposition to their ideas is mostly a problem with getting the rhetoric right, rather than a sign there’s something wrong with the policies themselves.
One of the most prominent sponsors of education reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made the same case with its recent announcement that it will “stay the course,” according to The Washington Post, in supporting the reform agenda. Speaking for the foundation, Melinda Gates told Post reporter Emma Brown that overcoming opposition to reform is mostly a matter of securing “community buy-in,” rather than changing anything local communities don’t like.
The Walton Family Foundation, another giant in the reform cause, made a similar argument in rolling out its new “strategic plan.” According to Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss, Walton declares its work in the future will shift to “engage local partners and communities”—not to ask what they actually want in their communities but to build “a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on.”
That support may be hard to muster. Reformers’ claim that charter schools help “poor and minority kids” has recently been soundly refuted by civil-rights organizations.
The NAACP is calling for a nationwide moratorium on the proliferation of privately managed charter schools. The NAACP resolution, which passed at the group’s convention in July, cites numerous problems posed by charter schools, including their tendency to increase segregation, impose “punitive and exclusionary” discipline policies on students, and foster financial corruption and conflicts of interest.
The prominent civil rights group the Movement for Black Lives—a coalition of more than fifty black-led organizations aligned with Black Lives Matter—is also calling for a moratorium on charter schools.
So charter schools, the “one exception” to the continuing list of failed school reforms, now appear to be falling out of favor as well.
Big money, rather than superior policy, continues to be the reform movement’s ace in the hole. Campaign contributions from reform organizations remain strongly influential in electoral contests, most often dividing Democrats. Education reformers recently spent millions in California primary contests to elect their favored candidates, and charter advocates are pouring millions into a referendum campaign in Massachusetts to lift the cap on charter schools, despite Democratic Party opposition to the bill.
A New York Times article reporting on the charter moratoriums called for by the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives reported that the main opposition comes from well-financed organizations—Democrats for Education Reform and the Black Alliance for Educational Options—that are connected to billionaires and the hedge-fund industry.
The media has long drawn a false equivalency between a reform effort funded by rich people and an opposition consisting of teachers, parents, grassroots organizations, and communities of color. But there are signs that politicians in the Democratic Party are beginning to see the light.
In her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has made remarks about the charter school industry that deeply upset charter advocates. Clinton pointed out that charters too often cherry-pick students rather than serving the general population.
Progressive Democrats working in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign rewrote the education section of the party’s platform so the party now officially opposes high-stakes testing and evaluating teachers using student test scores, while favoring democratically controlled public schools over privately managed charters.
So who’s winning? Clearly Ravitch and others who question the education reform agenda are beginning to move Democrats, the media, and popular opinion away from market-driven orthodoxy and toward support for high-quality public schools. That’s truly a victory of grassroots organizing over wealthy individuals pushing their interests. It’s also what being a progressive is all about.