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.

economic news

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.

5 Comments on “Radio commentary, April 8, 2010

  1. “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.”

    Perhaps the people who are spending have the money to spend? Does the small population of rich people have hugely disproportionate spending power?

    This Citibank report seems to think so. (Yes, I sheepishly admit that I saw the Michael Moore movie)

    “In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy
    and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings
    rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc.”

  2. I also think retail sales has to do with upper income spending, for one, I work in an sector with mostly wealthy clients and haven’t seen a huge drop off (apart from the months around Lehman when they were all terrified, which was nice too see).

    The obsession with charter schools is mainly about breaking the teacher’s union. Charter schools, as opposed to magnet schools, are open enrollment – but they are non-union. Even if , for now, they have to go along with the wages set by a district’s union contract. They erode union power by decreasing the percentage of teachers that can strike legally.

    The US isn’t particularly concerned about improving education anyway; the general idea is too import skilled labor from other countries and have them foot the bill. For instance, the percentage of Americans doing the technical research (grunt work) in Silicon Valley is much lower than people realize.

  3. Regarding the rebound of consumer spending from my own experience — I spent most of 2009 worried about getting laid off and subsequently saving every penny I could.

    After it became clear that I wasn’t going to get laid off, I let out a little pent-up demand.

    I suspect that that a lot of still-employed people did the same — redirecting some would-be savings toward spending.

  4. purple,

    Your comments about charter schools contain many errors.

    Charter schools have nothing even remotely resembling open enrollment. Almost without exception, they cream the children of more involved parents, provide few or no services for special needs students or English language learners, and “counsel out” students who might bring down their tests scores or depart from the student profile they seek.

    Some of them pay the prevailing wage; many do not. Even among those that do, they tend to require sweatshop hours from their staff and students. This is also a major reason for their popularity among elites and the malanthropists who fund them: ya gotta socialize those kids to a future of overwork, tedium and on-the-job surveillance.

    As for decreasing the number of teachers who can strike legally, well, probably not. Here in New York, where I am a NYC public high school teacher and union activist involved in fighting charter schools invasions of public school buildings, it’s illegal to strike, and the UFT often uses the potential dangers of striking as a way of getting its membership to accept bad contracts.

    The primary purpose of charters is to privatize public education. The teacher unions, as the most powerful institutional defenders of the schools, thus become the most important target. However, charter supporters, who comprise a Who’s Who of contemporary oligarchy, are also interested in dominating the social engineering aspect of schooling, and having it serve their labor market needs. It also gives gives them the ego and vanity boost of getting photographed with cute Black children during the fundraisers, while they continue to plunder those same children’s futures during their day jobs.

  5. The rise in consumer spending could be connected to the timing of tax refunds. Many people are receiving their refund checks at this time. Lower income workers might be receiving their EIC, and even higher wage workers are receiving the “Making Work Pay” credit. This extra “income” could be driving the rise in consumer spending. People are receiving their refunds and making purchases they may have been delaying for months.

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