In her new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch summarizes, defines, and humanizes the widespread attack that has threatened public education across the United States in the past quarter century. And she tracks an encouraging backlash, a growing resistance led by dogged individuals, community organizations, and organized schoolteachers.
What’s been called corporate-accountability-based, test-and-punish school reform is something we’ve all watched over the years—nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—statewide as school budgets have been stretched to pay for privatized charters or vouchers—and locally as our children began taking too many standardized tests, our local schools began receiving letter grades on state report cards, or students left the local public school for a nearby charter school.
With only scanty newspaper coverage to guide us, however, we may have struggled grasp the ideology behind this war on public education or see how all the lines of attack were converging to discredit public schools and the work of local teachers. Diane Ravitch, the education historian, has done us all an enormous favor with this new book.
Ravitch defines the ideology of the war being waged on public education by a giant army. Ravitch names the so-called “school reform” movement a Goliath-sized experiment in disruption. Goliath’s work can be seen in “the wreckage that the so-called ‘reform’ movement had created by demonizing teachers as if they were adversaries of their students and treating them as malingerers who required constant evaluation lest they fail to do their duty…. (in) the damage inflicted on public schools, their students and teachers, by heedless billionaires who had decided to disrupt, reinvent, and redesign the nation’s public schools…. (in) the work of some of the richest people in this nation: the Walton family, Bill Gates, Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, and a bevy of other billionaires, most of whom had made their fortunes on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the tech industry.” These people and their organizations “often say their goal is to ‘disrupt’ public education, and I think in this instance they have accurately named themselves. They are Disrupters…. (T)he current disruption movement… is in fact a calculated, insidious, and munificently funded campaign to privatize America’s public schools, to break teachers’ unions, to tear apart communities, and to attack teacher professionalism… Disrupters are proponents of privatization… Disrupters view education as an entrepreneurial activity that should be ‘scalable’ and should produce ‘return on investment.'”
The Disrupters have brought us a dangerous narrative about “failing” public schools even though most of us appreciate our local public schools and the professional teachers who nurture our children. And the Disrupters have redefined the purpose of education: “In the new era of disruption, it seems quaint, antique actually, to speak of ‘love of learning’ as a goal of education, to speak of education as personal development and preparation for citizenship in a democratic society. Where is the profit in such fuzzy goals? How could… (the profit) be measured?”
Who is Goliath and who is funding the war on public education? The funders are the giant philanthropies like Gates, Broad, Walton, and a host of others including Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, and the Bezos family. The movement is also funded by corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and hedge fund managers. It is being promoted by advocacy groups like ALEC; the member state foundations of the State Policy Network—groups like the Goldwater Institute in Arizona and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan; national advocacy groups like Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and EdChoice—formerly the Friedman Foundation. There are lavishly funded think tanks paid to produce the so-called “research” on which the movement is based. And finally the movement has permeated states and local school boards through the work of ideologically aligned politicians. Ravitch names names in every category, but perhaps the most arresting is the list of Disrupter-aligned Republican state governors: Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis; Michigan’s Rick Snyder; Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence; Ohio’s John Kasich; Arizona’s Doug Ducey; Illinois’s Bruce Rauner; Georgia’s Nathan Deal; Kentucky’s Matt Bevin; and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and Bill Lee.
Who makes up the Resistance? Ravitch calls our attention to the imbalance in this battle, beginning with the level of philanthropic support: “The number of foundations which support the Resistance is in the single digits, led by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. This is truly a David vs. Goliath matchup.” Scholars and academic researchers have supported the Resistance with information: Harvard’s Daniel Koretz and his book The Testing Charade, David Berliner and Gene Glass and their book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten American Public Schools, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski and their book The Public School Advantage, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, Duke’s Helen Ladd, Rutgers’ Bruce Baker, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, U. of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing and her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, political economist Gordon Lafer and his In the Public Interest study of the cost of charters for the Oakland Unified School District, and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado—to name just a few of Ravitch’s examples. School teachers have organized Save Our Schools rallies and working together, the Badass Teachers Association and parents produced United Opt Out. The Network for Public Education has pulled together education columnists, bloggers and community groups. The Journey for Justice Alliance, led by Chicago’s Jitu Brown—one of the 2015 Dyett Hunger Strikers who fought to save the public Dyett High School from closure—has organized an army of parents, high school students, and local community activists from city to city.
Where were the major battlefields in the war on public education? Ravitch devotes short, readable chapters to some of the biggest fights. One chapter explores the damage wrought by high-stakes standardized testing; another presents the research on how a strategy based on incentives for raising scores and punishments for low-scoring school districts, schools, and teachers has undermined the morale of teachers and ruined kids’ enjoyment of school. A chapter on school choice, deregulation and corruption begins: “Any organization that receives millions of dollars in public funds should be subject to public oversight and accountability. Lobbyists for the charter industry have fought against accountability and oversight, claiming that any regulation would hinder innovation.” We learn about disruptive reforms which faultered when they didn’t work out as promised: the Gates-funded Common Core Standards; Value Added Measure (VAM) evaluation of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores; and the Parent Trigger school takeover initiative. One chapter describes the philanthropy-funded takeover of the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina, and the profusion of vouchers and charter schools foisted on Florida by Jeb Bush, his foundation, ExcelinEd.
Despite all the money and ideology invested to disrupt the public schools, Ravitch demonstrates that the Resistance is ultimately winning this battle. Test-and-punish didn’t work. No Child Left Behind declared that all children would be proficient before 2014 or their schools and teachers would be punished. But test scores didn’t budge. The NAACP released a major resolution demanding a moratorium on new charter schools until they are regulated in the public interest. The ACLU released studies on how charters secretly and illegally select the most promising students. Barbara Madeloni became president of the Massachusetts Education Association and in November of 2016, successfully organized the state’s teachers and citizens to defeat Question 2—a ballot initiative that would have lifted a rigid cap on the startup of new charter schools. After the election, Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, dug through the records of funders of the pro-Question 2 campaign and discovered the bundling of illegal gifts from out of state donors. Cunningham’s work put New York’s hedge-fund backed Families for Excellent Schools out of business when Massachusetts imposed huge fines.
Ravitch ultimately credits the RedforEd wave of teachers’ strikes in 2018-2019 for forcing the public to question Goliath’s narrative: “The teachers taught the nation a lesson… They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect. That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years… The politicians thought that they could silence teachers by breaking their unions. They were wrong. Teachers learned that together they had power. And they won’t forget that lesson.”
Even though Goliath has not died, the giant’s energy is flagging. Ravitch believes, the Resistance has taught us to keep on keeping on with all the skill and energy we can muster. Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, will be on bookstore shelves on January 21. It is now available for pre-order. I urge you to get a copy and read it carefully.