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Diane Ravitch on Why Charter Schools Are A Really Bad Idea

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This past Thursday, former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, laid into “charter schools” and “No Child Left Behind” on the Diane Rehm Show. This is a timely and topical subject here in Virginia, as Bob McDonnell’s education agenda relies heavily on the “charter school” concept. In contrast to McDonnell and his ideological approach to education (and everything else, for that matter), Ravitch is essentially nonpartisan – a Ph.D. historian of education and research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education who served under both President George HW Bush and President Bill Clinton.

Earlier this month, Ravitch came out with a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, which is being described in glowing terms by reviewers. For instance, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes, “Her credibility with conservatives is exactly why it would be particularly instructive for everyone–whether you have kids in school or not–to read [Ravitch’s book].” I’m looking forward to reading the book, but in the meantime, I listened to Ravitch on the Diane Rehm Show.  I also read this article by Ravitch, “The Big Idea — it’s bad education policy.”  A few key points regarding charter schools and why they’re a really bad idea.

*”Charter schools are no panacea. The nation now has about 5,000 of them, and they vary in quality. Some are excellent, some terrible; most are in between. Most studies have found that charters, on average, are no better than public schools.”

*”On the federal tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 2003 to 2009, charters have never outperformed public schools. Nor have black and Latino students in charter schools performed better than their counterparts in public schools.”

*”[C]harter schools have many advantages over public schools...Studies of charters in Boston, New York City and Washington have found that charters, as compared to public schools, have smaller percentages of the students who are generally hardest to educate — those with disabilities and English-language learners. Because the public schools must educate everyone, they end up with disproportionate numbers of the students the charters don’t want.”

*”So we’re left with the knowledge that a dramatic expansion in the number of privately managed schools is not likely to raise student achievement. Meanwhile, public schools will become schools of last resort for the unmotivated, the hardest to teach and those who didn’t win a seat in a charter school. If our goal is to destroy public education in America, this is precisely the right path.”

*”We don’t want schools to compete and try to put the other schools out of business…that’s wrong.”

*”What is, I think, going to be the undoing of the charter sector is the outrageous salaries that some of the charter operators are paying themselves…the rainmakers, the people who make the deals with the politicians…some of them are paying themselves $400,000 a year, $500,000 a year out of public funds…we had one charter school in New York City, where the woman who was running it got a golden parachute of a gift of $700,000… I mean, this is something that in the public sector people would find shocking.”

*”We’re in the process of not only privatizing our schools but deprofessionalizing what should be an honored and esteemed profession.”

*”What’s sad about this…the charter schools started in 1988 with the idea that they would become R&D laboratories to help public schools. Instead, they have been taken over by private entrepreneurs with the idea that this is a great money stream, you can go to the bank with this commitment of the government funds, and then in many places they’re trying to put public schools out of business.”

In sum, reading and listening to Diane Ravitch, it’s obvious why Republicans like Bob McDonnell would be gung-ho on charter schools. The question is, why would anyone else?

UPDATE: Arlington County School Board member Libby Garvey weighs in.

I heard part of the Diane Rehm show and will definitely get the book. Having been a school board member for the past 14 years while NCLB has gone into effect, this is a breath of fresh air. Yes, she may be late, but I think that gives her more credibility to the many people who simply think professional educators don’t know education and aren’t qualified to criticize the privatization movement. It’s been terribly frustrating that the people who are on the front lines of this battle are assumed to be unqualified to comment or assumed to not want the best for our children. And the stakes could not be higher. Our nation’s future depends on the quality of its public education.