Charter schools are putting both our children and our democracy at risk, says former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch

A few days ago, education historian Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first President Bush, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on the subject of school privatization. In the interview, Ravitch, who was once a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind, talks of her ongoing research into the $500 billion K-12 education sector in America, the aggressive push currently being made by hedge funds into the space, and her ultimate realization that charter schools are putting both our children and our democracy at risk.

Here are a few of my favorite exchanges, followed by video of the interview. (Note the references to Michigan.)

MOYERS: You have said that within ten years, there’ll be cities in this country without public education.

RAVITCH: I think at the rate we’re moving now, we will see places like Detroit, New Orleans, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and many, many other cities where public schools become, if they still exist, they will be a dumping ground for the kids that the charter schools don’t want. We will see the privatization of public education run rampant…

MOYERS: We’re talking about big money, aren’t we?

RAVITCH: Absolutely. Minimum, at least, from the estimates I’ve seen it’s a market of $500 billion.

MOYERS: A year?

RAVITCH: Yes. An annual market of $500 billion. So the entrepreneurs do see it as huge opportunities to make money. There are now frequently conferences, at least annually, conferences on how to profit from the public education industry. Now I never thought of public education as an industry. But the entrepreneurs do see it as an industry.

They see it as a national marketplace for hardware, for software, for textbook publishing, for selling whatever it is they’re selling, and for actually taking over all of the roles of running a school. This is what the charter movement is. It’s an effort to privatize public education, because there’s so much money there that enough of it can be extracted to pay off the investors. But I think what’s at stake is the future of American public education. I’m a graduate of public schools in Houston, Texas, and I don’t want to see us lose public education. I believe it is the foundation stone, one of the foundation stones, of our democracy. So an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.

MOYERS: The people behind privatization, you say they’re flush with cash. Where is it coming from? Where does this money trail start?

RAVITCH: You have to understand that firstly we do have a significant number of for-profit charter schools. They’re not the majority, by any means. But they’re driving a lot of the legislative changes. There is also the power of the federal government.

Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, put out $4.3 billion called Race to the Top. And he said to the states, you can’t be eligible for any part of this money unless you lift your cap on charter schools. So suddenly the lure of getting that federal money made many states change their laws to open the door to many, many more charter schools.

So that’s really what driven the increase in charters. But what — the other thing that’s driven them is that there is a tremendous political force of very wealthy hedge-fund managers who are investing in the charter-school industry and seeing it grow. And so they have fought for these laws. There’s also a lot of charter school money going as political contributions to legislators in many of the states where the charters are booming…

MOYERS: Charter schools are not all bad, are they?

RAVITCH: They’re not all bad. The worst thing about the charters is the profit motive. And I want to reiterate that most charters are not for-profit. Although many of the non-profits are run by for-profit organizations. For instance, in Ohio, where they’re overrun with for-profit operations, they’re actually not for-profit charters. It’s just they’re run by a company, in one case, called the White Hat company. Which has extracted about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds since 1999.

In Florida where there are some nearly 600 charter schools, they’re overrun with for-profit schools. There’s a charter empire in Southern Florida where the brother-in-law of the guy who runs the charter empire, which is worth more than $100 million, is in the state legislature and is in charge of education appropriations. And he never recuses himself. And the charter industry has basically taken over the legislature of Florida.

In Michigan, more than 80 percent of the charter schools operate for-profit. They don’t get good academic results, by the way, but they make a lot of money. And the worst of the charters, frankly, are the virtual charters. This is a moneymaking machine.

MOYERS: Virtual charters?

RAVITCH: Yes, these are charter schools that have no, actually, no physical school. And they advertise very heavily. And they’re in many states. The biggest of the companies is called K12. It was funded by Michael Milken and his brother.

MOYERS: Michael Milken of junk bond fame.

RAVITCH: Right. And they’re very profitable because they get full state tuition signing up kids to learn online… So the kids are basically home-schooled, they get a computer and textbooks and then they learn online.

MOYERS: So they make their money from the state funding?

RAVITCH: Right. So they get full tuition money and all they give out is a computer and they may have one teacher monitoring fifty or a hundred screens, in some cases, more than a hundred screens. The teachers are low paid. They don’t have any physical building to take care of, no custodians, no social workers, none of the regular expenses of a school. They’re very profitable. K12, by the way, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange…

MOYERS: If the for-profit motive were taken out of charter schools, do you think they have potential?

RAVITCH: No, because I think that what charter schools should be is what they were originally supposed to be. They were originally supposed to be a collaborative, cooperating with public schools, trying to solve problems that public schools couldn’t solve. The original idea was that they would go out and find their dropouts and bring them back.

They would help the kids who lacked all motivation and bring these lessons back to public schools to help them. What they have become is competitors. And they’re cutthroat competitors. And in fact, because of No Child Left Behind and because of Race to the Top, there is so much emphasis on test scores, that the charters are incentivized to try to get the highest possible scores.

And now that there are so many hedge-fund people involved, they want to win. They want to say to these guys who are on another school board, my charter got higher scores than yours. So if you’re going to make scores the be all and the end all of education, you don’t want the kids with disabilities. You don’t want the kids who don’t speak English. You don’t want the troublemakers. You don’t want the kids with low scores. You want to keep those kids out. And the charters have gotten very good at finding out how to do that…

MOYERS: On your blog, there’s a speech by the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings. He seems to be saying that 20 years from now, 90 percent of our schoolchildren will be in charter schools. And that we have to get rid of school boards, because all this democracy is very messy. And everything should be should be managed by charter-like boards. Is that the endgame, is the charterization of American public education?

RAVITCH: I think for many people in the charter movement, that is the end game. They want to see an end to public education. They continue to say that charter schools are public schools. They are not public schools because they say in court, whenever asked, we’re private corporations with a contract with the government.

In fact just recently there was a decision in New York that charter schools can’t be audited by the state controller because they are not a unit of the government. In California there was a decision in the federal court saying, charter schools are not public schools. They’re private corporations.

MOYERS: So this puts their accountability off limits, right?

RAVITCH: Right. And in fact, in many states, the charter schools don’t have to hire certified teachers. So we’re moving in a direction that is harmful to democracy. That is not good for kids. And that will not improve education. And so when you say how do I feel about the charter movement, I’d say that it should return to its original purposes, which is to help the neediest kids. To seek out the kids with the lowest test scores, not the highest ones, and to do, to collaborate with public education to make it better.

But what it has turned into, and I think that Reed Hastings’ speech puts that very well, is an attack on democracy and an effort to replace public education. That if 90 percent of all the kids are in charters, the other 10 percent that’s left, that’s called public schools, will be the dumping grounds for the kids that the charters don’t want. That’s a direct attack on our democracy.

MOYERS: When you were on the money trail, looking at how this money influences the movement, you ran into the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC. What did you learn about ALEC?

RAVITCH: ALEC is an organization, as I discovered, that’s been around since 1973. It has something like 2,000 or more state legislators who belong to it. And ALEC is very, very interested in eliminating public education.

It has model legislation, which has been copied in state after state, in some cases verbatim. ALEC wants to eliminate collective bargaining, and it’s done a good job on that. It wants to eliminate any due process for teachers, so that teachers can be fired for any reason. It wants teachers to be judged by test scores. It’s done a really good job of that. It wants charter schools, it has a charter legislation, it has voucher legislation, it has legislation to promote online charter schools. So the whole package of what’s called reform is being pushed very hard by ALEC. It’s being pushed very hard by a group called Democrats for Education Reform.

That’s actually the hedge-fund managers’ organization. So you get the combination of ALEC with its state level, very far-right-wing legislators, who have taken over some legislatures. For example, North Carolina is now completely ALEC-governed. And they have enacted everything in the ALEC package.

MOYERS: Where does ALEC’s money come from, as you’ve found it?

RAVITCH: ALEC has major, major corporate funding. It’s hard to find a major corporate group that is not part of the corporate sponsorship of ALEC.

MOYERS: What’s their motive?

RAVITCH: ALEC wants money to flow freely throughout the economy. They do not want any restraints on how they spend and where they spend. They don’t even want to be audited if they could avoid that. That’s why the charter schools, for example, have fought in court to prevent public audits, because they share this philosophy that what they do is their business…

I’d love to see Ravitch debate Michelle RheeCan one of you at the College Education at either UM or EMU make that happen, please?

In the meantime, check out Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, and start sharpening your pitchforks.

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  1. Demetrius
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I can think of few issues more important to the future of our society, and what’s left of our democracy.

    Our public schools were certainly never “perfect,” but throughout much of the 20th Century, and until as recently as 25-30 years ago, there was at least a majority consensus around the idea that free, quality, public education was both a right (for all children, regardless of income, geography, or background) and a responsibility (that taxpayers had an obligation to help foster the next generation). Also inherent in this model was the idea that teachers were dedicated professionals who deserved our admiration, and support … but that’s another part of the story.

    Today, as our education “system” becomes increasingly splintered among public, private, charter, online, home-schooling, etc., our schools are rapidly becoming re-segregated along racial, economic, religious, and philosophical lines — all fueled by profiteers, and many people’s blind allegiance to the “free market” and the illusion of “choice.”

    The worst part is, I don’t think most people even realize what’s actually happening … or what the consequences are likely to be.

  2. ypsilovin
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    What kind of schools do Moyers and Ravitch’s children attend? I bet it is not a public school.

  3. Kate
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I’d love to see her debate Arne Duncan.

  4. EOS
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Both Ravitch and Moyers called our country a democracy. And they want to force everybody’s kids to be fed their propaganda. No wonder so many leave public schools.

  5. Heathen
    Posted April 7, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    “Propaganda” = Everything that isn’t the Bible.

  6. Posted April 7, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Yes, yes, 1000x yes. I think it also bears mentioning (and maybe she says it at some point in the interview) that charter schools and schools of choice also destroy neighborhood schools. When your kids leave the local schools, they take their money and that damages the neighborhood schools (and also the neighborhood). It’s too easy for parents to not like the local school (where I teach, not in Washtenaw, this dislike largely comes from racial issues), pull the kid and then who is left in the neighborhood school? The ones no one else wants or who have parents who don’t have transportation or don’t care enough to bother.

    In DPS, we frequently got kids whose parents wanted a “better fit” for their kid or because they didn’t like a teacher at a previous school or because their kid was disciplined at the old school. This led to schools not wanting to discipline or fail kids lest they lose the kid (and their funding). And I should also mention the huge influx of previous charter school kids that we would get, say, a day or so after Count Day. Suddenly, the charters decided that the special ed kids and discipline kids weren’t a “good fit” for their school and they bounced back to their local school which had to take them.

  7. Posted April 7, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Diane Ravitch’s kids are quite grown now–I’m pretty sure they are not in K-12 schools right now.

    Thanks Mark for sharing this!

  8. Christine Moellering
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    My anatomy teacher at WCC is also a public charter school teacher at a National Heritage Academy. She told me last night she would NEVER send her kids to one of those schools. She said there are lots of great teachers and educators that work at the school but it’s ALL about the bottom line which is profit. She also said she hates working for them and she tries daily to find a public school position.

  9. Jcp2
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Where do private school parents fit in this debate?

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] difficult to accept that we let it come to this. How was it that we sat by, despite the clear warning signs, and allowed the Republican legislature to remove the caps on for-profit charters, while reducing […]

  2. […] making decisions that are putting the future of humanity at risk. Our public schools are being systematically dismantled. Our cities are being taken over and sold for scrap. Our elections are being gamed by way of […]

  3. […] historian Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first President Bush, on the subject of school privatization. In the interview, Ravitch, who was once a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind, talks of her […]

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