Ravitch: Private Sector Should Provide Help, Not Competition for Public Schools

Senior Editor

The name of this blog is Marketplace K-12, but to Diane Ravitch, the most appropriate market for schools is a decidedly public one, where private companies keep their distance.

The provocative education historian is making the rounds for her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. A follow-up to Ravitch’s recent bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, her latest work offers a broad takedown of what she sees as the overhyped sales pitches and broken promises of private interests in education, from school voucher programs to online providers to charter-school operators, and the policymakers who support them.

Ravitch met with a group of education reporters today at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, where she later appeared on a panel that included Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

One of Ravitch’s core arguments is that elected officials, philanthropists, and financiers have foisted a “narrative of failure” on the American public, in which the country’s schools are in crisis (national test scores, and the United States’ continued economic prowess undermine that argument, she says, and that they wrongly believe the only way to rescue schools is through policies that end up setting unrealistic academic goals for them, punishing teachers, and increasing the sway of private operators.

You can watch a webcast of the full EPI event below, but here are some of arguments Ravitch put forward during the Q&A with reporters on the privatization theme.

I asked Ravitch if, given her critiques of corporate involvement in schools, she sees any role for the private sector in public education. She said the private sector’s part should be limited to selling goods to schools, in technology and other areas, and raising money for the many schools that need it.

But the notion of pitting public schools against private schools or against schools with private operators (presumably through vouchers and other choice systems) is counterproductive, she argued.

That sort of “competition does not work,” Ravitch said. “When I talk to teachers, the one thing they agree on is what makes a school work is having a collaborative culture. The school doesn’t get better by looking over its shoulder at what some other school is doing.”

Schools and teachers also need “some degree of professional autonomy,” she said. If competition worked, “the highest-performing city in the country would be Milwaukee,” which has a longstanding voucher program, and where test scores are low, compared with other big-city districts.

Backers of vouchers would, of course, assert that public schools do in fact benefit from competitors looking over their shoulders. While a lot of research on the benefits or consequences of vouchers is mixed, a study from a few years ago by David Figlio of Northwestern University concluded that a Florida voucher program that supports private school scholarships for students through corporate-tax credits had a positive effect on the test scores of students in nearby public schools that were forced to compete for those students.

I also asked Ravitch to what extent critics of vouchers actually need to fear them, given that those programs, despite a recent burst of state activity, continue to serve only a tiny portion of the nation’s student population. But to Ravitch, one of the main threats posed by vouchers is not just their immediate effect on public schools, but the way they weaken the public’s conviction in maintaining an effective, and equitable, public K-12 system.

“What the public has to fear is the….gradual change in belief in public education [being seen as] a civic obligation, to public education as a consumer good,” Ravitch said.

She cited former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s speech at the Republican national convention last year—in which he said that parents’ ability to shop for school options should be as easy as shopping for different flavors of milk—as a symbol of the consumerization of education. If vouchers expand, it will contribute to an attitude toward public education that “it’s not my problem, it’s yours,” Ravitch said.

“When people start to believe that, they’ll say, well, I’ll send my kid to parochial school,” she said. “I don’t care about the public school. I have no responsiblity for that; let [the schools] die.”

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5 thoughts on “Ravitch: Private Sector Should Provide Help, Not Competition for Public Schools

  1. While I strongly support Diane Ravitch and regard her book Reign of Error as probably the most important single book on education in decades, her chapter on vouchers could have been even stronger. The overwhelming majority of private schools benefiting from vouchers or tax-credit vouchers are run by religious organizations and are pervasively sectarian. Most indoctrinate kids with views hostile to women’s fundamental rights and freedom of conscience, and many of the newer ones inculcate a disrespect for science. It cannot be pointed out too often that 27 statewide referendum elections have registered very strong opposition to any diversion of public funds to private schools, with the 2013 Gallup/PDK poll showing opposition at 70%. Further, voucher and similar plans tend to fragment the school population along religious, ideological, class, ethnic, degree of disability, and other lines, which is not at all good for democracy and community harmony.

    Ravitch is right on target. Her book should be read by every parent, every teacher, every citizen who cares about the future of public education, our children and our democracy.

    Edd Doerr (arlinc.org)

  2. I think Ms. Ravitch has to go back to school herself. She has zero understanding at how innovation happens. Schools won’t change unless they are incentivized to do so. I would encourage Ravitch to look at the depth of research that informed Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation Theory, for example.

    Entrenched cultures need to learn from what others are doing in a more innovative and nimble manner. The only way to re-engineer our education system is to create a series of new school designs and then neutralize the power points in the system that will free up the innovative spirit and permit these new school designs and approaches to be integrated into the traditional school establishment.

    Ravitch thinks that private investment in education alternatives is a threat to the establishment. Instead, it should be looked upon as a catalyst for real reforms. Not every investment will bear fruit, but the batting average will be far better than the investments made/squandered in the status quo.

  3. Al, there are venues in which competition is productive–usually venues with narrow scopes, however; for, contrary to the AT&T ads and the marketplace mantra, "faster," "bigger," and "making more money" are not the same as "better," and should not be confused with it.

    In education, there will always be successes and failures in things that matter–academics, kindness, insight, perseverance, humor–among both mainstream and alternative programs; and innovation, for better and for worse, happens chronically in both; and parents should be able to choose their venue according to their means. But for the most part, competition as a force siphoning funds and parental investment from neighborhood public schools weakens those schools and those neighborhoods. As a government, we should not be in the business of funding duplicate education programs.

  4. Presidents Clinton and Obama state that they support public schools. However, they have not supported the Washington, D.C. public schools with their children.

  5. "The provocative education historian", wow that’s awfully subjective praise considering you’re referring to one of the key architects of No Child Left Untested and one who has never pressed beyond neoliberal reforms by considering anything truly alternative or outside of the status quo. For a historian of ed. you should take a look at the exhaustive litany of sources cited in the research of John Taylor Gatto. For provocative, anyone at least thinking about truly alternative ed. i.e. Montessori, Waldorf, Free Schools, Unschooling, Reggio Emilia, etc. Let’s at least take a glimpse outside the box shall we, rather than rehash the tired retrospective of someone responsible for the diseducation of millions in the 80’s-90’s.

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