Thought leadership

Diane Ravitch: A reply

By Steven Wilson December 15, 2016

There is no historian of American education I admire more than Diane Ravitch; her fair-minded scholarship has inspired me throughout my career. How painful it is then to read her recent writings in The New York Review of Books and other forums. In place of reasoned argument, she offers a lurid and misleading account of recent school reforms, and insults and impugns the motives of those with whom she disagrees.

Charters are not vouchers. Ravitch knowingly conflates the two and conjures a right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education.

Contrary to Ravitch’s claims, the charter school founders with whom I have worked have no desire to “privatize education.” Charter schools are public: they are open to all students, regardless of ability or prior attainment; serve primarily urban children from poverty; are publicly funded and may not charge tuition or fees; and are overseen by public bodies governed by elected officials. In fact, our schools are arguably more public than the surrounding district schools. They are held far more accountable for performance, as they must reapply for their license to operate every five years and can be closed for poor results. Most importantly, charter schools in cities, where most are located, have been found to be more effective at fulfilling the public purpose of educating students.

Vouchers, by contrast, are redeemed in largely unregulated private schools which aren’t held accountable for their results and may select their students, teach religion, charge tuition and fees on top of the voucher’s value, and operate for private gain.

I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers. Our motivation is social justice, and we regard access to an effective public education as the civil rights struggle of our time. Massachusetts, a deeply blue state, hosts the strongest charter sector in the country. The law was sponsored by two liberal, pro-union Democrats: the chairs of the joint committee on education of the state house and senate.

Ravitch often claims charters have special advantages over regular public schools and can admit the students they want and exclude those they do not. In fact, students are admitted by lottery, without regard to ability or prior academic attainment, special needs, or English language proficiency. In Boston, where the state’s well-crafted charter regulatory regimen has spawned strong schools, charters enroll virtually the same proportion of black and Latino children, and rates of English language learners and students with disabilities are steadily increasing and approaching parity. Like district schools, charters can expel students, but such expulsions are rare. In fact, a 2014 District of Columbia study found that the district’s schools were 58 percent more likely to suspend or expel students than the city’s charters. Most charter school leaders would not countenance “counseling out” difficult to educate students and condemn charters that have been accused of such practices.

Despite Ravitch’s assertion, charters do not drain resources from district schools. District schools and charters are both paid in proportion to the number of students they educate. What could be more equitable? In some states, per-student funding actually increases when students leave for charters. Massachusetts district schools are “reimbursed” for three years for the cost of each student they no longer educate. If I stopped receiving the services of my doctors, would they demand to be paid for the medical services they no longer provide?

Ravitch claims that charters “open and close with disturbing frequency.” In response to demand from low-income parents determined to find an alternative to their chronically failing district school, the charter sector is growing. Unlike district schools, which are rarely closed no matter how many generations of students they have failed to educate, charter statutes subject schools to regular review and loss of license for poor performance. That is not disturbing, it’s heartening.

The idea that operators see a profit motive in charters, which are by law organized as charitable corporations, is fanciful. Ravitch offers three supposed pathways to private gain. The first, the use of New Markets Tax Credits to build facilities, benefits property developers and investors, not charter operators, and is intended to encourage investment in economically distressed communities; it is used not exclusively for charter schools, but for myriad developments that enliven depressed neighborhoods and provide jobs. The second, the EB-5 visa program, is also not specifically geared to charter schools but broadly to development projects in disinvested communities. The third, developing and leasing back facilities by operators to their own schools at a profit, was quickly condemned and prohibited by law in many states.

Charters do not weaken public schools, as Ravitch alleges; they strengthen them. Every area of human endeavor benefits from the press for improvement that even a modest injection of competition induces. Schools are no exception. Enlightened districts, like New York City, are making a concerted effort to learn from charters—and vice versa. Many of the most important recent innovations in public education took root first in charters, including a longer school day and year, explicit learning standards, stronger codes of conduct, data-driven instruction, intensive annual professional development of teachers, and much more.

In her recent piece in The New York Review of Books, Ravitch states that “rightwing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers.” Here again she both conflates and misleads. Prominent center-left organizations, including the Brookings Institution, Harvard, and MIT, have reported spectacular gains in charters in states with strong laws and effective chartering. For example, Brookings reported this year that “the test-score gains produced by Boston’s charters are some of the largest that have ever been documented for an at-scale educational intervention.” Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Boston’s charters provide the equivalent of more than a year of additional district instruction every year in both math and reading. In contrast, research on voucher programs to date have found small or no gains.

Charters do have advantages over district schools, but these are privileges all schools should have, if we are serious about putting children first: they are free to drop the agrarian schedule and lengthen the school day and year to create more learning time; write new job descriptions for educators like mentor teachers; pay more for scarce positions (like high school chemistry teachers); hire highly educated but uncertified teachers; train teachers in new teaching methods during the summer; establish grade-teams that study upcoming content and practice their lessons together; establish meaningful performance reviews and opportunities for teachers to be coached and improve; and dismiss, after progressive discipline, chronically underperforming teachers. In large urban districts, many or all of these actions are impossible under current law and union contract, and all have been essential to the success of charters—and to attracting a new generation of ambitious, driven teachers to lead and work in public education.

Charters do not diminish commitment to the “common good,” as Ravitch asserts; they advance it.

I would love to hear your questions or comments: email me at steven.wilson@ascendlearning.org.