Accountability Opinion

We Need Public Schools and Democratic Governance

By Diane Ravitch — December 07, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I agree that all of us who engage in these debates should adhere to a standard of civility. Last week, I engaged in exchanges with Bill Gates (see here, here, and here). I assume that Bill Gates wants better schools and is searching for the right answer. I hope that we might one day have the chance to discuss our differences. He said in the Newsweek article that he is “all ears"; so am I. I would be happy to have a public discussion of the issues with him at any time, with a moderator of his choosing. I hope he hears me!

Last Monday, I published an article in The Wall Street Journal calling on the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives to remember their long history as defenders of local and state control of education. I urged them to stop the federal takeover of education policy and the top-down imposition of harmful policies. I wrote in response to what I repeatedly hear as I travel to different districts. Parents and teachers ask how it happened that the federal government took charge of consequential decisions for their schools. They ask: “Why are they closing our school?"; “Why are we so powerless?"; “What can we do?”

When I was in Worcester, Mass., last week, I visited a lovely school—the University Park* Campus School. It’s a small public school that collaborates with Clark University. It has a wonderful culture of teaching and learning. It gets high marks on the state exams. But this year it was unable to top its previous high marks, so it “didn’t make [adequate yearly progress].” It bears a federal stigma, a mark of failing, which is the first step toward closure. My reaction: This is crazy. Why would the federal government create a system so mad that it labels a good school as failing?

When you see the same thing happening all over the country, then you realize that Congress must not just “tweak” No Child Left Behind, but start over. NCLB has become a vehicle for the destruction of American public education, not only because of its absurd mandate that 100 percent of all students must be proficient by 2014, and not just because of its requirement that schools must be closed instead of helped, but because it has focused the nation on basic skills test to the exclusion of every other important goal of education.

My old friend Checker Finn at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has taken me to task for my column praising state and local control. He blames local control for everything that is wrong with public education. His rebuke reminded me of the friendly arguments we had for the past few years. He wrote:

What [legislators] should do instead is re-imagine local control, clear out the dysfunctional bureaucratic underbrush, disentangle the responsibilities of different levels of government, make everyone accountable for their performance (as gauged primarily by student learning gains), quit throwing good money after bad, and unshackle education innovators and entrepreneurs so they can give their all to solving problems and creating alternatives."

Checker has been saying for years that we should “blow up” the public education system in this country. I see his vision as radical, not conservative. Since when do conservatives run around “blowing up” institutions? The picture he paints suggests thousands—or tens of thousands—of entrepreneurs running the nation’s schools, judging “success” solely by test scores. Checker has long derided local school boards and unions, so those would disappear, as would school “systems.”

I am not sure what to call this Brave New World of privately managed education, but I don’t like it. I think it removes education from the public sector. It leaves entrepreneurs free to do what they so often do: to skim students, to “counsel out” students, to avoid the students who might drag down their test scores, and to become creative in their use of data. (A recent article in the New York Daily News documented how one “model” New York City charter school achieved stellar results by holding back students repeatedly and keeping them out of the testing pool. Many alleged “miracle schools” have huge attrition rates or other clever ways to juke their data.)

For now, Checker’s view is clearly winning. Radical conservative governors who share his views were recently elected (in Florida, for example, where the new governor, Rick Scott, is working with Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee to reinvent the schools, undoubtedly at the expense of public education). Secretary Arne Duncan’s speechwriter David Whitman was previously a writer for Checker’s organization (he wrote Sweating the Small Stuff, which praised “the new paternalism”). The secretary chose to make a recent major speech on the new budget realities at the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank.

My response to these developments is not merely a matter of nostalgia, as Checker seems to believe. (I went to public school, and he went to an elite boarding school.) I think that public education is a fundamental institution in our democracy. Free public education—open to all, free to all, controlled by democratic means—is a central promise of our democratic society. Its purposes are civic, not just utilitarian; it exists to strengthen our democracy and our society. I believe it is wrong to privatize it. We must continue to have schools that are the center of their communities, where children are students, not products, and parents are citizens, not customers.

There is a strong rationale for public support of public education. As Robert Hutchins once wrote, they are part of the res publica, the public thing. Like public parks, public libraries, and fire departments, they are part of our communal responsibility. We must strengthen them, make them far better than they are now. To blame them for all the ills of our society, for all the demographic changes of the past generation, for all the burdens imposed by courts and legislatures, is wrong. To destroy them would be a civic crime.


* Updated with corrected school name on Dec. 8, 2010.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.