Radio commentary, April 8, 2010
Just one guest up on today’s show, Diane Ravitch, the former conservative educational reformer turned critic of the whole testing and privatization agenda that is now not only the province of the Republican party, but the Obama administration as well.
Since I want to say a few words about Ravitch and education before playing the interview, only a few brief comments on the economic news. One, it looks like American consumers are going back to their freespending ways. They haven’t yet reached the point of irrational exuberance, but the preliminary reports on shopping in March suggest that it was one of the best months in a decade. How people are funding this is beyond me. The job market is still weak, with poor prospects for serious recovery. Household blaance sheets still stink, with the asset side down for most middle-income families (their principal asset is typically their house, whose price may well still be sinking) and the liability side still high (mortgage and credit card debt, shrinking mildly but from a very elevated level). It’s a little scary, actually. I’ve been sounding off a lot about how our elite has learned nothing from the crisis; now it’s looking like everyone else is in the same boat.
Oh, and Greece is back in trouble again. A couple of weeks ago, the EU announced some sort of rescue package for Greece, but aside from an austerity program to be imposed on the Greek masses, there wasn’t much substance to it. Now the markets are back to selling Greek bonds and making life miserable for that country. It looks like Greece, unlike the USA, doesn’t have the luxury of learning nothing from crisis—though my guess is that the U.S. exemption won’t last forever.
Ok, now to Diane Ravitch. Diane Ravitch is a historian of eduation, and an education policy specialist. She got famous for her conservative ties—she served in the George H.W. Bush adminsitration and found herself signing on with the whole Republican schools agenda: choice, testing, and privatization. Several years ago, she had a change of heart and mind of the sort that’s very rare in public life. She realized that the policies she’d been promoting were not only ineffective, they were destructive.
She’s now out with a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, published by Basic. It’s a very good book. It’s a detailed, smart, yet very readable analysis of the controversies around public education today, written with a historian’s sense that all this didn’t begin the day before yesterday.
Before playing the interview, recorded earlier in the week, I want to underscore a couple of points. First, while the whole testing and choice agenda, one that ultimately tends towards the privatization of the public school system, was once a Republican obsession, it’s now become a bipartisan affair. The Obama administration hasn’t merely continued the Bush education agenda—in many ways, they’ve intensified it. With the Republicans, it’s all-too-easy to be scandalized by the notion of eduation policy being set by absolute yahoos, who not only don’t read books, but are suspicious of those who do. (And by that I don’t mean to deny that there are serious conservative intellectuals—there are. I’m thinking srrictly of politicians like George W. Bush and his cabinet, and most of the Republican Congressional delegation.) But Obama is far from a yahoo, and so too most of the people who surround him. So why are these non-yahoos pursuing such a yahoo agenda?
Though not yahoos, they are a bunch of centrist technocrats. Technocrats are usually obsessed with what they like to call “metrics,” but they’re pushing policies, like school choice, charter schools, and vouchers, that have absolutely no support in experience. There’s no evidence that they imrpove educational outcomes. The only reasons I can think of for this now bipartisan consensus is that privatizing schools is a way of saving money, and that the whole notion of choice and competition fits in nicely with reigning bourgeois ideology. Note that the business and political elite that is pushing this agenda doesn’t, for the most part, send its own kids to these public schools. They send their kids to private schools, with rigorous traditional curricula, and, in many cases, a “progressive” approach to education. A regime of basic skills and military discipline isn’t good enough for their kids—just for the masses. Maybe that’s another reason for this agenda: producing better cogs for the economic machine. But it’s going to make us dumber.
During the interview, I mention the similarity of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments on Hurricane Katrina’s beneficial effects on the public school system to those of right-wing icon Milton Friedman’s. I’m not exaggerating. In January, Duncan called Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” That’s because it forced charter schools and the rest of the agenda onto the city. And here’s what Milton Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December 2005: “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Well, Friedman posthumously got that opportunity. Who could have guessed that a Democratic administration would be so enthusiastically pushing the program. Obama has erased what was one of the surviving major differences between the two parties, education policy.
And second, Ravitch writes and talks about the central role played by a handful of very rich foundations in pushing this agenda. The sinister role of foundations, unaccontable bodies run by rich people and their hired hands, in public life, is rarely talked about. Part of the reason for that is that many of the people who might talk about them, and many of the forums that might publicize their talk, are on the foundation dole, or would like to be. I’m not. And I’ll never miss an opportunity to point out how toxic these things are.