In the second half of Reign of Error, also written in a punchy, data-rich style, Ravitch offers a set of proposals for education, and they are in keeping with the social and educational vision of progressives like John Dewey. Specific policy proposals range from prenatal care for pregnant teens to smaller class sizes. Ravitch has now joined the growing ranks of scholars and educators who, while arguing that genuine school reform is crucial, decry the claims of reform utopianists that schools alone can somehow solve the problems of a radically unequal social order. The quality of teaching at public schools can be improved, she says, but such efforts should march in tandem with progressive initiatives in areas like jobs, housing, healthcare and early childhood education.
Nearly one-quarter of American children are poor. By emphasizing that poverty is the central tragic fact about the nation and its schools, Ravitch is able to explain how, with their false crises and ill-judged solutions, corporate educators have created a world of school “reform” that masks the true forces of deterioration in the public sector: constant school budget cuts and swelling class sizes; the tailoring of the curriculum to what tests easily in a multiple-choice format; and an impoverishment of educational services and vision that erodes the prospects for poor children more than anyone else. The result is a system in which, increasingly, regular district schools become dumping grounds for low-scoring children sitting in decaying buildings that resemble those of a failed state.
It is especially worrying that the federal government, a big backer of corporate reform, seems to be abandoning its role as a defender of equity and social justice. The test score gap between black and white students narrowed in the era of school desegregation, which was enforced by a vigilant federal government and the courts—but in recent decades, segregation by race and income has returned as the new normal in American education. Much of the public, and parts of the government, have shown little interest in countering the exacerbation of racial and class segregation; instead, Republican gerrymandering and the Supreme Court have chipped away at older civil rights advances. The rare, brave and successful efforts at desegregation by race and income, such as in the Wake County school district in North Carolina, are now in retreat under threats from suburban whites, right-wing politicians and cynical profiteers.
Many educators who backed President Obama were shocked when he not only backed major elements of No Child Left Behind but also doubled down on its preference for school “reform” by means of testing and privatization. His Race to the Top program is worse than its predecessor in its insistence that states evaluate teachers on the “junk science” basis of yearly gains in students’ test scores. Its requirements and goals have also triggered a whole new machinery of failure that culminates in the privatization of schools. This may be the first time in history that the federal government has encouraged private sector investors to create for-profit schools.
Ravitch offers an excellent snapshot of the interlocking directorate of the corporate-reform movement, which spans a political spectrum ranging from the Obama administration to the Koch brothers and ALEC, the right-wing legislative outfit, and includes the powerful and little-understood Gates, Walton and Broad foundations. These actors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a grand effort to deprofessionalize and privatize public education. The Common Core State Standards, for example, have already been adopted by forty-five states (though few have even heard of them)—rushed through, as Ravitch says, by coalitions of corporate reformers and their allies. When students across New York State did poorly on Common Core–aligned tests last year, some observers began to suspect that beneath its lofty aims, the Common Core could become yet another layer of pointless testing and another means of labeling schools and teachers as failures. The most urgent question posed by corporate education reform, Ravitch says, is “whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.”
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The school failures and closings sanctioned by Race to the Top cause disruptions in neighborhoods where there is already little stability in children’s lives. When a school is labeled a failing or “focus” school, it must concentrate all the more on test results, but at that point many of the academically ambitious families who can will have fled for better prospects. Federal regulations operate like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink. Increasingly, such schools enroll more and more of the disadvantaged in a downward spiral.
In a high-profile experiment in New York City, then–Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed low-scoring schools and replaced them with charters, but the city still has many strong district schools. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed forty-nine allegedly “failing” schools (some of them launched not so long ago by an earlier corporate reformer—Arne Duncan, the current secretary of education—when he was in charge of the Chicago schools). Emanuel claims that the charters have a “secret sauce” for success, not knowing—or pretending not to know—that charter test scores are often the result of pushing underperforming students out. A badly informed public has little idea of the excesses of privatization now unfolding in cities like New Orleans, Cleveland and Philadelphia, or in states like Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, as in so many other states, the election of a radically right-wing Republican governor spells deep trouble for public education. There and in Ohio, wealthy entrepreneurs have created businesses to run charter schools that get terrible results but are never held accountable because the entrepreneurs are major campaign contributors. In Cleveland, the mayor replaced dozens of public schools with charters even though Ohio charters generally perform worse than district schools. In Philadelphia, the Boston Consulting Group—whose well-paid consultants include Margaret Spellings, secretary of education under President George W. Bush—was invited to write a report recommending privatization, even though many Philadelphia schools were privatized years ago and are doing badly.