BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Saving Our Public Schools

Are US K-12 public schools at-risk? Yes, they are, but not in the way those who claim to be their saviors, author and education blogger Diane Ravitch writes in Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf, 2013).

In fact, some of the reformers are former allies of the author. My, how things can and do change, as Ravitch details in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, that precedes Reign of Error.

A product of the Texas public schools and research professor of education at New York University currently, she brings clear and compelling evidence and data, research and studies, to bear on the core actors and factors at play in the decades-long campaign to change America’s public school system. Her approach clarifies, in short chapters and readable prose, what the change agents (reformers) cite as an actual education crisis, but in the case Ravitch presents factually fades into thin air.

She spends two-thirds of the book dispelling the case the reformers make for following their doomsday cry the sky is falling on K-12 public schools. In the book’s final third, Ravitch proposes policy alternatives to the current course, such as increasing prenatal care, expanding preschool and strengthening schools’ democratic control.

She shows the face of the risk facing public schools. It is the relentless drive to privatize them.

Ravitch reveals the context and identities of the reformers. Think 1% of the 1%.

The reformers, with deep pockets to amplify voice that ape this line in and out of the press; argue that students’ (mainly black and brown kids) require more high-stakes performance tests to improve academic achievement. Wait a minute, Ravitch writes.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test scores of American public school students’ (from near all backgrounds) in math and reading have been rising over the past two decades. Check out the NAEP scores in a useful Appendix at the end of Ravitch’s book.

With verve, she demystifies the corporate reform language, with its heavy reliance upon shibboleths about test scores (domestic and global), achievement gaps, high school and college graduation rates. Ravitch deconstructs the reformers’ education solutions such as merit pay, teacher seniority and tenure; charter and cyber schools that can bewilder and confuse.

The K-12 public school reform trend in the US has of course gained steam since the 1970s, the end of a postwar economic model. What many see began with President Ronald Reagan, the upper class attack on labor unions, New Deal and Great Society policies, paved the path for the incremental assault on public education.

Today we see corporate-funded advocacy groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council leading the charge in statehouses across the U.S. They are where the education money is for local school districts, Ravitch writes. Federally, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and Race to the Top Fund (part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), call the policy shots.

My minor quibble with Ravitch is in exposing think tanks such as The Heartland Institute, whose website proclaims its work supports “free-market solutions to social and economic problems” is knee-deep in lobbying states to privatize K-12 public schools. Such a strategy is less “free-market” than the politics of government intervention, hardly the work of competitive entrepreneurs.

Ravitch’s solutions to what ails K-12 public schools are straightforward. She supports redistributive policies to benefit the poor and working classes.

What is not to like? Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a must-read for Americans in and out of public schools.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013

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