Diane Ravitch – the well-known education expert and author – spoke at P.S. 29 on Henry Street on Tuesday night, and she had a clear message: Public schools are under siege by a business class that wants to privatize education. Kids are at risk, teachers are demonized, and parents should “chain themselves to the schoolhouse doors” in protest.
“We need civil action,” Ravitch said. The Occupy Wall Street movement was inspirational, and has now spawned an Occupy the Department of Education movement, which Ravitch encouraged parents to check into.
“In this city, we have no accountability,” Ravitch said, after pointing out that public schools had not improved under the leadership of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Ravitch was a consultant for three conservative think tanks and a proponent of charter schools before having a change of heart, and rallying against charters. She is the author of ten books on education, including her latest bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
She addressed the national boom in charter schools.
“What’s happening is to turn the schools into a free market activity,” Ravitch said, as charters are competing with public schools. “What this will do to our democracy is corrosive. Neighborhood schools are replaced by new schools that in a few years will close.”
Of course many in New York City are excited about the opportunities provided by the new charter schools, such as Success Academy Charter, which is set to open in Cobble Hill, on Court Street (see our in-depth piece).
But Ravitch said charters are no silver bullet, and should not harm the public system. Local schools should be a part of America’s governmental offerings, like police and fire, she said.
Ravitch was instrumental in leading the federal effort under first President George Bush to promote national academic standards, and the Washington Post and others have hailed her as a leading U.S. expert on education. She says that governments are choosing charter schools because they are less expensive than opening and pumping money into public schools.
Charter schools are booming in New York City. Charter schools are public schools that are managed by private non-profits, and accept kids via lottery. They are “chartered” by the state of New York—the State University of New York is the largest charter authority in the city and state, and is responsible for overseeing the nonprofits that run the schools. Charter schools do not employ union teachers.
As Ravitch pointed out, some charters perform extremely well, and some perform no better or far worse than their public school counterparts.
Charters in New York City are often funded by hedge fund managers. Ravitch suggested that public schools would greatly turn around if Wall Street money was funneled there.
“What we are seeing right now has nothing to do with education, and everything to do with cutting costs,” she said.
Meanwhile, testing and increased regulations on public schools has taken over our system.
“This data is meaningless,” she said of the “report cards” given out to NYC public schools.
“What we are doing to our kids is sick,” Ravitch said. “They’re not numbers.”
Meanwhile, she rallied against judging teachers by student test scores. “A fifth grade reading test determines if the fifth grader can read, not the quality of the teacher.”
There is an “ax” over the heads of city principals, and teachers, to get test scores up, she says. Many city public school kids are graduating with a fourth-grade reading level, after passing the regents, Ravitch said.
“I believe there’s a lot of cheating going on,” Ravitch said.
“It’s fraud against children,” she said.
For people who want to learn more and get involved, Ravitch suggested reading Gary Rubenstein’s blog and joining the N.Y. City Public School Parent network.