• Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Knopf, 2013, 396 pages, $27.95.
RALEIGH — At first glance, Reign of Error suggests at least some criticism of the American education establishment, especially from an author who once styled herself a reformer. But Diane Ravitch explains that in her 2010 The Death and Life of the Great American School System she “recanted my earlier support for what is now known as the ‘reform’ agenda.” She now completes the recantation in stunning fashion.
In her view, “public education is not broken,” as the 1983 A Nation at Risk charged. For Ravitch that study simply “shifted blame for shortsighted corporate leadership to the public schools.” What now passes for “reform,” which she puts in dismissive quotes, is “a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.”
Likewise, the “reformer” movement is really a “corporate reform” movement “to transform public education into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” And these reformers are not challenging a corrupt status quo. As Ravitch sees it, “the ‘reformers’ are the status quo.” For those familiar with the battles between genuine reformers and the education establishment, such an assertion may be hard to top, but she manages to pull it off.
She calls the agenda a project of “partisans on the far right,” and in this account, there is no far left. The author proclaims that “advocating the privatization of public education is deeply reactionary.” Further, “the public is not ready to relinquish its public schools to speculators, entrepreneurs, ideologues, snake-oil salesmen, profit making business and Wall Street hedge fund managers.” The government education monopoly, on the other hand, can do no wrong.
Ravitch would have us believe that the current system, in which taxpayer dollars must trickle down through multiple layers of bureaucratic sediment, is precisely what the American founders had in mind. Even though the founders delegated education to the states, Ravitch has no problem with the dictates handed down by the U.S. Department of Education — a gift to the National Education Association for supporting Jimmy Carter — which now wields a budget of $77 billion.
As Richard Mitchell and many others have noted, the government education monopoly is a collective farm of ignorance and mediocrity. In Ravitch’s mind, to be less than worshipful of this system is to oppose democracy itself. Defending and preserving the system, she writes, “is the civil rights issue of our time.”
The government education monopoly functions like a domestic East Berlin, walling in its subjects. Educrats, not parents, determine where children go to school. Ravitch has no problem with that violation of civil rights and shows utter contempt for parents. “The theory of parent empowerment makes no sense,” she writes. In fact, “the very idea of the parent trigger is an insult to the education profession.” In effect, she tells African-American children in failed and dangerous schools, such as those in Compton, Calif., that the masters in public education knows best, the implicit subtitle of this book.
Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush, opposes the linking of student test scores to teacher evaluations. She marshals charts and data, but her case remains unconvincing. At the outset, for example, she concedes “schools are not fine just as they are.” She also hurts her case by remaining utterly uncritical of teacher unions — the real reactionaries — who wield enormous money and power.
Ravitch backs to the hilt every teacher union cause, from tenure to seniority to practical immunity from dismissal, and shares the unions’ antipathy to charter schools and online education. “Disabling or eliminating teachers’ unions,” she writes, “removes the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts.”
Nowhere in Reign of Error does Ravitch consider that a 19th century industrial model might not be suitable for the education of today’s children. She includes nothing about the number of union teachers who send their own children to private schools — a figure approaching 40 percent in Chicago, whose striking union teachers Ravitch defends, along with their $75,000 average salaries. In Philadelphia the figure is 44 percent, and it’s 33 percent in New York City and New Jersey suburbs.
Likewise, readers will find nothing in Reign of Error about Milwaukee school-choice advocate Polly Williams, who famously said that Bill and Hillary Clinton should not be the only people who live in public housing and get to send their children to private schools.
Ravitch also avoids the issue of “social promotion,” in which educrats advance students to the next grade regardless of academic achievement. Thanks, to social promotion, more than 50 percent of freshmen at some California state universities need remedial math and English. And these students are supposed to the highest achievers.
The author recalls that in 2008, Barack Obama’s education specialist was Linda Darling-Hamilton of Stanford — an academic who generally opposes accountability measures — and laments that Obama chose his pal Arne Duncan for secretary of education. In Reign of Error, Ravitch may be lobbying to become federal education boss in a Hillary Clinton administration.
The author’s solutions include more early education and bundling medical and social services with schools, all things that Hillary wants. Like Hillary, Ravitch opposes the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and the teacher cartel has become her cheering section.
In The Language Police (2004), Diane Ravitch showed herself a keen critical thinker, unafraid to challenge the onslaught of political correctness. Reign of Error is a confession that the critical thinker has disappeared, replaced by a windy and craven apologist for government monopoly education. Like Winston Smith in 1984, Diane Ravitch has won the victory over herself. She loves Big Brother.
Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.