Former Assistant Secretary of Education and current president of The Network For Public Education joins us to discuss the uncertain future of America’s education system.
Author & Research Professor Diane Ravitch
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Never before has an Education Secretary become such a lightning rod for controversy like Betsy DeVos. After weeks of a contentious nomination process and just a few days on the job, many were horrified over the weekend when the official education department Twitter account misspelled W.E.B. Du Bois’s name not once, but twice.
But it’s Secretary DeVos’s radical agenda that most concerns Diane Ravitch. The former Assistant Education Secretary joins us to talk about why privatization is a dangerous hoax — her word — to America’s public schools.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Diane Ravitch coming up right now.
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Tavis: I am pleased to be joined by Diane Ravitch, President of the Network for Public Education and a former Assistant Education Secretary under Bush 41. 10 years ago, she published a scathing critique of the standardized testing system she once supported in programs like No Child Left Behind.
Since then, she’s become a defender of public schools against what she calls the hoax of privatization. I am honored to have Diane Ravitch on this program. How you holding up so far?
Diane Ravitch: Thank you, Tavis. I am honored to be with you.
Tavis: Glad to have you. How you holding up so far?
Ravitch: I went paragliding the other day, so I’m holding up really well [laugh].
Tavis: You’re paragliding, Obama is water surfing or whatever he’s doing. How can you be so calm at a moment like this?
Ravitch: I’m actually not calm. I hate what’s going on. There’s a full-scale frontal attack on our public school system and it’s an outrageous. Because close to 90% of the children in this country go to public education and public education is the bedrock of our democracy.
Doors open to all, taking in kids who are English language learners, kids with disabilities, kids who are troublemakers. Everybody gets to come in and they’re taught what they need to learn about being good citizens. That’s what we have to preserve.
Tavis: I want to pivot in just a moment to give you a chance to tell your story for those who heard me intimate a moment ago or suggest that you’ve been on a journey. I want to give you time to explain that journey and how you arrived at the place you are now as a strong defender of public education.
But first, is it fair — I’ve heard all kinds of fellow citizens make this suggestion that we need an Education Secretary who really believes in public education. Is it fair to say that Ms. DeVos does not believe in public education?
Ravitch: It’s absolutely fair. She does not believe in public education. She has spent millions of dollars funding candidates who are opposed to public education. She has funded anti-public education people all over the country. She’s had huge influence in Michigan. Michigan is now not only an all-choice state, they don’t have vouchers.
But she tried to promote a referendum to put vouchers into the State Constitution and it was turned down overwhelmingly, 69 to 31. So she tried and failed on vouchers, but still there are hundreds of charter schools. Michigan is the only state in the country where 80% of the charters operate for profit and that’s the way she likes it.
Tavis: What do you make of — and I know the simple answer is politics, but I want to go a little deeper than that. Thankfully, I know you can. So let’s submerge. What do you make, then, of what Congress did, what the Senate did, in approving and Education Secretary who clearly based on the record is not a supporter of or believer in public education?
What was that about? Was it just making sure that Donald Trump didn’t lose one early on? Why would an otherwise reasonable senator, no matter what party you were in, put someone at the top of the hierarchy who doesn’t believe in the system they’re overseeing?
Ravitch: Well, I think number one is they didn’t want to disappoint President Trump. Oh, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that [laugh]. They didn’t want to disappoint…
Tavis: You want me to cut that out before we air this [laugh]?
Ravitch: I don’t care, I don’t care.
Tavis: Okay, yeah.
Ravitch: They didn’t want to disappoint Trump, but, secondly, she and her family are among the biggest donors to Republican politicians in the country. She and her family have given about $50,000 each to half the Republican members of the Senate. And several of the people on the committee that approved her had received $50,000 to $60,000 each from the DeVos family.
So you’re talking about people who are masters of dark money and masters of being Republican contributors, and they were not going to let her down.
Tavis: All right. We’ll come back to where we go from here now that she has the assignment. Before I do that, though, tell me more about your personal journey. I mentioned where you started, I mentioned where you are now on these issues. Tell me how you did all that.
Ravitch: Sure. I went to public school in Houston, Texas from kindergarten through 12th grade. And from there, I went to a wonderful college in the east, Wellesley College, same college that Hillary Clinton went to, Madeleine Albright went to. And I became a historian of education, had children, became a historian of education, and I became increasingly conservative in my views. I can’t tell you exactly why.
But I was invited to join the first Bush administration as Assistant Secretary in charge of research and counselor to the Secretary, the Secretary then being Lamar Alexander who was from Tennessee, and I have great respect for Lamar.
Tavis: Current senator now.
Ravitch: Current senator from Tennessee and head of the education committee in the Senate that approved Betsy DeVos. So for a number of years, I was involved in very right wing think tanks at Hoover Institution and two others.
I was in favor of testing. I was in favor of school choice. I supported the original idea of charters. But about 2005, 2006, after No Child Left Behind had been in effect for half a decade, I began to look at the results and say this is not working. It’s not helping kids. It’s turning schools into testing factories.
I began to hear documented case after case where charter schools were failing and one of the think tanks I was on was sponsoring charter schools in Ohio. Every single one of them was a failing school, and I said, “But this isn’t what I expected”.
So I began writing critically about what was going on and then I decided I would write a book about what I had learned. And I wrote a book in 2010 called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education”.
I cut my ties with all the think tanks. I found myself for a time kind of out on a limb all by myself and then I discovered I had a lot of new friends. And I felt very comfortable in my skin because if not for public schools, I wouldn’t be here.
My family — my mother was an immigrant from a country that doesn’t exist anymore, Bessarabia, which is now Moldova. The proudest thing she ever owned was her high school diploma from the Houston public schools.
I was one of eight children. We all went to public schools. I’m not sure what the world would have been like for us had we had the kind of system that Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos want.
Tavis: Did you ever give thought, Diane, to staying inside of those conservative think tanks — not that you could, so don’t laugh at me. But did you ever give any thought to staying inside there and trying to change it from the inside out?
Ravitch: Well, I was encouraged by my partner to do that and I wouldn’t do it. Because it became — I felt like I would have been a mole and I didn’t want to be a mole. I began disagreeing in the last few years I was there. I was the dissident and I found myself out-voted again and again, and I thought this is not very comfortable to always be the person saying no, and no one’s changing their mind.
And I would say, “Look at the evidence. Things are not working. The charters are not working and all of this emphasis on test scores is treating children as if they’re just data. These are children. They’re not data.
And what good does it do to say to a child in third grade you’re a failure? Because you destroy their self-esteem before they’ve even gotten started.” I wasn’t persuading anyone and I said I got to get out and I did.
Tavis: You used a phrase a moment ago that no one was changing their minds. Why is no one changing their minds even with the data you referenced?
Ravitch: Well, I think, firstly, there’s a very deep ideological commitment to the idea that testing is really important. Standardized testing somehow tells you something you need to know. Now I don’t agree with this and I’ve come to see that the people who like standardized testing the most are the ones who got high scores.
Now I got high scores. I got into a wonderful college, but I began to understand that the standardized testing is a way of the privileged maintaining their privilege. Because the nature of standardized testing is such that a lot of kids are going to fail and they’ll be told early on you failed, you failed, you failed.
And most of those kids who will be at the bottom will be kids with disabilities, kids who don’t speak English, children who grow up in poverty. And not every time, they won’t always fail, but most of the kids who fail will be those children.
And I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be part of a new vision of education where we look at every child and say, “You have potential that we don’t even recognize and we’re going to help you find that potential.” And their test scores are not going to tell us what that potential is.
Tavis: If not testing, then how do we know where these children are? How do we know at what level they are performing or under-performing?
Ravitch: I think you begin by trusting their teachers. I think about, for example, the very elite private schools. Very few of them ever use standardized tests and they trust their teachers to know where the kids are, what they need to do, and how to help them. I think we can learn everything we need to know from sampling tests.
So there’s something in this country called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s a federal test. It’s given every other year and we can look at that federal test and say Massachusetts is doing the best and Mississippi or Alabama are doing the worst.
Well, what’s the big difference between Mississippi and Alabama on one hand and Massachusetts’ income? So what you know from the standardized tests is you’ve got a proxy for family income.
So you could eliminate all the standardized testing and just say tell us your parents income and we’ll tell you where you fall on the spectrum. So we’re not helping children by labeling them. But the other part of the issue you asked me about, why don’t people change their minds, it’s the ideology of the free market.
You know, we went through this period of saying democracy has now conquered the world and the free market has conquered the world and we should oppose all government bureaucracy. Well, that’s really saying that private is always better than public. And in a healthy society, you have a private sector that’s strong and you have a public sector that’s strong.
Tavis: Not to cut in, but it also to my mind makes education just another commodity.
Ravitch: Right, exactly. So there’s a big move on and has been for a long time to make education a commodity. In higher education, the states have been shifting the burden of cost to students. And there are some countries that recognize that higher education should be free because education is a human right and we shouldn’t expect children and young people to pay for human rights.
Tavis: Why do we — you got me going now because you’re saying stuff so fast which I love that I want to follow up on right quick. So let me jump in on this one first. Why in this country is education not a human right?
And I ask that because my friend, the former Congressman, Jesse Jackson, Jr., of course, got himself in trouble, has now paid his debt to society, but every year he pushed for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee every child in this country access to — it’s a key phrase — access to an equal, high-quality education.
Access to an equal, high-quality education. It’s not about prejudging outcomes, but that every child in the country, to your point about Mississippi, Alabama, Washington State, Massachusetts, every child in the country ought to at least start at the same place.
So for all the other rights that we are guaranteed in this country and for all the rights we were arguing about during this presidential campaign, gun rights, etc., etc., why is education not a human right in this country?
Ravitch: It should be, but the word education never appears in the U.S. Constitution. That’s number one. And number two is that a lot of people have the view that education somehow is a privilege and not a right. And I think that what we have to continue arguing for — and I think one day we’ll persuade people — is that education is the most important investment we can make in the future of this society.
And that means that this society, and particularly right now, we look around and Los Angeles and California is a great place to see this, we’re a multicultural society. We have to educate all children. We can’t just educate the privileged children. We can’t just educate those who are in the top half.
So that means that we have to see our society in the future is one where the investment in brain power, the investment in thinking skills, critical thinking skills, that has to be spread across the spectrum to all children.
But that’s controversial right now because what we’re going to see during these Trump years is a push to privatize public education, not a push to equalize education.
To my way of thinking, every child deserves, as Jesse Jackson, Jr. said, every child deserves to have a high-quality school within reach of them. They shouldn’t have to say, well, we’re going to close your neighborhood school and there’s a good school an hour away, but you don’t have transportation to get there. That’s no choice at all. Also, there are a couple of things to understand about school choice.
Number one, school choice originated with segregationists. It originated the term. School choice comes from the 1950s. It emerges in the 1950s when the Brown decision came out and all these southern governors and southern senators said, “Never, never. We will never desegregate. We will never open the doors of our schools. We need school choice.”
So the term school choice was actually stigmatized for a very long time. Now we hear it coming from the president’s mouth and it’s a segregationist term and we must never forget that.
And school choice now — and I can tell you this happens wherever there is school choice — leads to more segregation. And the segregationists, George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, all those fellows from the 50s, they understood that.
Tavis: I wonder how much of the push toward privatization, how much of the demonization of public education, how much of having an Education Secretary who doesn’t believe in public education, has to do with the fact you just raised a moment ago that these schools now have more children of color in them than they ever have.
And I wonder whether or not, wittingly or unwittingly, deliberately or unintentionally, we’re just writing these kids off in part because of the way they look.
Ravitch: Well, there’s no question that the movement for school choice has gotten its greatest momentum amongst the most right wing politicians. It’s been funded by the Koch Brothers, by various right wing think tanks, and it always has a segregating impact.
That means that, in some states, the charter schools, for example, will be very white because they don’t want to go to school with Black kids. And some cities, they’ll be all Black, so these charter schools will be more segregated than even a district that’s considered segregated.
The approach of these charter schools, particularly when they’re called No-Excuses, is that Black children need to be civilized. They need to be taught to obey, they need to stand in line, they need to wear a certain outfit, and they need to never ask questions. Just do what they’re told.
This is not creating children who think for themselves. This is creating children who are obedient. Many studies have been done, including one that came out of Texas just last year. It was done by a pro charter economist from Harvard.
They said that children who go to charter schools in general in Texas have lower test scores, lower lifetime earnings. The children who go to the No-Excuses charter schools have higher test scores, not a lot higher, but some higher, and no difference whatsoever in terms of their lifetime earnings.
So all this effort to divert money from the public schools where most kids are, every dollar for charters comes out of public schools. Every dollar for vouchers comes out of public schools. And that means that where most kids are, the situation becomes worse.
Tavis: And yet what’s killing me is that I feel about education some days, Diane, the same way I feel about climate change or global warming. It’s that there are people who are running the country in Washington who just don’t want to believe the science. They don’t want to read the data. So I come back to, again, Miss DeVos.
How is it that we have someone running the Education Department where it was abundantly clear in the hearings all the data pointed out that they are not doing well in Michigan at all. After all the money they’ve poured in, the data is so abundantly clear. And we acted during those hearings as if the data just didn’t exist.
Ravitch: Well, the other day I was giving a talk somewhere in Texas, in Commerce, Texas. Someone said, “What’s the best ammunition against privatization?” And I said, “The best ammunition is evidence, if anyone will listen to it. I can’t promise you they’ll listen to it.”
But look at Michigan. Michigan used to be right in the middle of the states and the states are ranked by their test scores on this national test given by the federal government. Michigan was at about 25, 26, 27 in 2003. It’s now scraping the bottom, number 47, number 48.
Michigan’s down there with Mississippi and Alabama after 10 years of DeVos’s policies. And if you look at Detroit where choice has been the answer to everything, Detroit is the lowest performing urban district in the country.
Nothing has been done to help the children of Detroit. If you wanted to help the children of Detroit, first of all, most of them wouldn’t be poor. And, secondly, they would have health services, they would have adequate food. There’d be all kinds of programs to help them have a decent life.
Tavis: My granddad used to say jokingly — and maybe not, knowing him [laugh]. He’d say all the time, Diane, “Tavis, I don’t know what the question is, but the answer is gin.” I don’t know what the question is, but the answer is gin. I think about that when I think about privatization.
It’s almost as if the question doesn’t matter. The answer is privatization. For education, for everything, I don’t care what the question is. The answer is privatization. When, where and how where education is concerned did we fall in love with the answer as privatization to everything?
Ravitch: This has been the goal of the far right for a very long time, for maybe the last 25, 30 or more years. There’s an organization which is not well-known called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It was started in 1973. It is devoted to privatization. And when it started, it was very small. Now it has over 2,000 state legislators who belong.
ALEC writes the model legislation and they carry it back to their home state and they just write in their state’s name about making guns freely available, eliminating any regulation on the environment, taking away any right to join a union, taking away any right for teachers to have any kind of job security.
It’s all coming out of ALEC. So they’ve been working on this since 1973, so that’s a lot of years. Many other right wing organizations, whether it’s the Heritage Foundation, there are now these little mini conservative foundations in every state talking about libertarianism and freedom.
What they really mean is privatization. They don’t want a public sector, and I’ve been challenged about this where people say, well, would you want to live in public housing? Would you want to take public transit?
My response is, do you want to have a police department? Do you want to have a fire department? Do you want to have public beaches and public highways? Are you going to have your own highway? Are we gonna privatize the highways? Shall we get rid of our public forests and national parks? I mean, you got to have a strong public sector. Education is a public responsibility.
Tavis: So what does — for the next four years — what does the fightback look like on the education front?
Ravitch: I think that, strange as it may seem, Betsy DeVos has been a gift to those of us who are opposed to privatization because this has been flying under the radar. I mean, the Obama administration was promoting charter schools and they kept showing one stellar charter school after another and the data were usually not there.
At one point, they went down to Florida with Jeb Bush to celebrate a school that had turned around. And a month later, that school that had allegedly turned around because of firing all the teachers was put on the state failing list to be closed. We have needed to have a president who would fight for public education and we didn’t have that in Obama.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. Do I hear you saying then that Betsy DeVos is really Obama and Arne Duncan on steroids?
Ravitch: She’s worse than that. I mean, Obama and Duncan never went for vouchers. They drew the line. The problem is that when you say as Obama and Duncan did that they’re for school choice and they draw the line at vouchers, it’s very hard to maintain that line. It’s like being a little bit pregnant.
So once you go down the road of saying public schools — Arne Duncan used to say all over the country that public schools are failing, teachers are bad. That was wrong. It was factually wrong. Public schools in this country do an incredible job despite the lack of public support they should be getting.
I mean, I’ve been in schools where there are kids, teenagers, wearing diapers. They don’t want them in the charter schools. They don’t want them in the voucher schools. I’ve been in public schools where they have kids who don’t speak English and they’re taught English. They don’t want them in those privatized schools. So the public schools are doing an amazing job.
What strikes me as the most startling ignorant thing is that here we are arguably the most powerful country in the world, the most creative country in the world, the most culturally exciting country in the world, and then they say our education system stinks. But I wrote a book about what a lie that is. The test scores today are higher than they’ve ever been in history for every group of kids.
The graduation rates for every group of kids is the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rate is the lowest in history. And yet they say our schools are failing. The whole failure narrative is about setting up the schools for privatization. So where’s the fight going to come from? Betsy DeVos has energized the fightback.
First of all, my organization, the Network for Public Education, we were kind of perking along. We had 25,000 members and, in a period of two months, we’re over 350,000 members. We have members in every community in this country and they’re angry and they want to save their schools and they’re parents and they’re teachers. And we’re not the unions, so we will coordinate.
There are now groups forming in every state in this country to fight back. They’re Republicans, they’re Democrats, they’re Independents. They believe in public education, so she has awakened a sleeping giant and we’ll fight for our schools.
Tavis: I got 20 seconds to go. We clearly have the skill. Do we have the will?
Ravitch: That’s going to be determined in the next four years because it isn’t just Betsy DeVos. It’s about all kinds of services, public services that this administration will privatize if given the chance.
Tavis: Diane Ravitch, thank you for your work and thank you for your insights.
Ravitch: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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