Public education is under attack. Local school boards are under attack. Local governance is under attack.
That was the blunt message delivered by Diane Ravitch at the closing General Session of NSBA’s annual conference in San Diego.
A nationally recognized education researcher and author, Ravitch has become a fierce critic of many of the education reform models that, in the past decade, have been advocated by misguided state and federal policymakers, as well by wealthy ideologues. And she shared her criticisms and concerns with conference attendees.
“What I’m going to try to do today,’ she said, “is arm you with the facts you need to help you defend your public schools from an unprecedented assault.”
The repeated attacks on public education today—and the so-called reform proposals being touted as solutions—are both inaccurate and deceptive, Ravitch argued.
“These people who call themselves reformers, who say our public education system is obsolete, that it’s failing, that it’s broken … they’re wrong,” she said. “Our schools are not failing. Our system of public education is not broken.’
“Let me tell you what’s the problem—our federal education policy is broken,” she added. “Federal education policy is hurting our public schools. Federal education policy has abandoned the historic principles of federalism and is imposing mandates that are bad for children.”
The truth about public education and many of today’s reform ideas will be laid out in her upcoming book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of Privatization and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, she said.
The truth, she said, is something you don’t see on the evening news or in the daily newspapers. In reality, test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the highest in history. High school graduation rates are the highest in history. The nation’s dropout rates are the lowest in history.
Such positive news is drowned out, however, by the purposeful barrage of negative messaging by critics of public education, she said.
What’s more, she added, those that use low-performing schools as proof of public education’s failure always argue for reform models that ignore the root causes of struggling schools—that these schools are struggling to educate large numbers of students who live in poverty, speak little or no English, or are racially segregated.
But inconvenient facts don’t serve the needs of those with ideological or profit-minded agenda, she said. For these critics, the attacks on public education are part of their effort to expand the role of charter schools and vouchers—to privatize public education—so they can extract profits from public education funding.
Whether fueled by ideological or profit motives, these critics also are seeking to under-mine the authority of school boards, she warned. They encourage state and federal mandates to take more decisions out of the hands of local school officials, and they advocate for new state agencies to bypass the role of school boards as the authorizing body for charter schools.
In some cases, these advocacy efforts are similarly worded—based on model language drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded advocacy organization that has funded numerous charter and voucher initiatives across the country.
There’s a reason school boards have seen themselves under pressure in recent years, Ravitch said.
“You’re in the way. You are guardians of your public schools … that your school dollars are spent wisely,” she said. “It’s your responsibility to provide oversight and not hand off [schools and taxpayer dollars] to entrepreneurs.”
So you need to go.
There is “something unseemly unseemly about this rush to hand over public facilities, public access over education … to private entrepreneurs,” Ravitch said. But, if it’s a hard truth, the good news is that school boards can do something to stop about it.
“As members of local school boards, you are powerful—you have it in your power to stop this raid on public education … to use your power to support democracy, support public education, and protect your children.”