What Does Privatization of Public Schools Mean?
We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.
– Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education
As I have written, the goal of union busting by Republican state Governors and their respective legislatures, is not only about destroying unions, it is about privatization, particularly privatization of public education. This has been on the wish list of conservatives and John Birchers, like the Koch Brothers, for a long time. With the Koch Brothers deeply involved with Wisconsin and Republican politics, we are seeing the first wave of attacks with the explicit goal of dismantling public education. The Tea Party, also funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, are set on eliminating the Department of Education. It is a full court press on all fronts to achieve their goals.
Mother Jones did an excellent article on Diane Ravitch excerpted here.
The former Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush’s administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important “fact-checking” on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.
Mother Jones: What is your greatest concern about the direction of public education in the next ten years?
Diane Ravitch: The advance of privatization and a renewed push for vouchers. That we will actually go backwards in this country and that the public education system will become a dumping ground for kids who didn’t make it into charters. That we’ll see in many cities a degradation of public education. That there will be charters skimming off gifted and high-performing kids and we’ll create a two-track system.
MJ: Would you support charters, if we got rid of for-profit charters and only had non-profit charters?
DR: We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.
But even on non-profits, there should be a cap on salaries, so that the operator can’t be paid a lot more than the average salary of the public system.
I support charters, but the right kind of charters. I support charters that support kids who have the highest needs. A charter should be targeting students who are in serious trouble. It should serve students who didn’t succeed in public schools when it can help them. Or, at least, charters should agree to accept similar proportions of the kids with the highest needs.
Charters should be subject to the same rules governing conflicts of interest and nepotism that apply to public schools, and they should go through the same financial auditing. In New York State the Charter School Association went to court to prevent the public auditing of their books, and said as charters, they should be free of that. But they get public money. How can you be free of auditing? They say they do their own auditing. That’s not enough.
MJ: In your book you have a chapter called, “The Billionaires Club” in which you critique what you see as overly top-down education reforms by the big foundations. Many grassroots organizations in the US are supported by billionaires like Ford, Rockefeller, and Soros. How is what Gates, Walton, and Broad doing in education different?
DV: What’s happening now is venture philanthropy. They look at their philanthropy as an investment. They start off with strategy and a reform idea which they believe is right and then they say here is the money, but you have to do what we tell you to do. When Eli Broad funds medical research, he doesn’t tell them how to do medical research. But he has very clear directions for public schools with a pro-charter school and teacher evaluation obsession. Gates gave a billion dollars to break large high schools into small high schools and then decided that wasn’t working. And now he’s moved on to teacher evaluations. Well, he never made a public accountability statement about why small high schools weren’t working. We don’t really know what his inner logic was. The big issue that concerns me is that they are using their money to control public policy and they have no accountability.
MJ: Are there ways in which teacher unions should improve to work better for parents and children?
Their job is to make sure that teachers have rights. Their job is to go to the state legislature and make sure that there is enough money for schools, so that schools have decent class size. That’s the best thing that unions do for parents and kids. They advocate for children in state legislature. And the states where unions have little or no power have cut the schools to the bone. Teachers were very badly treated before there were unions.
The reason there are attacks on unions is because they are reliably Democratic and so you have governors who are trying to cut their legs off. It will strengthen their position politically. It will also make it easier to cut education budgets. Taking away the collective bargaining rights is only going to hurt children.
MJ: Most Americans support collective bargaining rights for teachers. But some teachers and parents have told me that unions should reform. Are there any areas in which you think they could improve?
DR: I’d like to see unions work more closely in a relationship with parents. So that they understand that they have shared interests. Together they will be a more potent force in supporting public education.