DETROIT - School reform is not a new topic but the nature of the debate has changed. In decades past, education critics mainly wanted to make public schools better. They sought more training for teachers and increased funding for schools.
But now, says educator and author Diane Ravitch, the question is, "Will public education survive? Will we continue to have a public education system that is bound by law to accept all children? Or will we have children enter a lottery to see if they get accepted by a charter school? Will public schools be the default option for those that didn't make it into public schools?"
Few can break it down the way Ravitch does. She once saw strict government mandates and charter schools as the impetus for reforming public education. She's changed her mind. Now she sees the great harm being done to public education and worries for its future.
She speaks almost daily nationwide. I caught her in Detroit at a program sponsored by Wayne State University's Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society.
The narrative she describes is heard in every community throughout the nation: Our public schools are failing, bad teachers cause low test scores, teachers' unions keep bad teachers from being fired, the answer is to weaken or eliminate teachers' unions, fire bad teachers and turn public schools into charter schools.
"In our big cities, we are on our way toward a free market system of schools," Ravitch said. She pointed out that in such a dog-eat-dog system poor and minority districts will end up on the bottom rungs.
"We have an obligation to have a public sector that serves every part of this community," she said
That has not been the effect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which was signed into law in 2002 by President Bush and is still the law of the land. Ravitch says it set a "utopian goal" in school districts of 100 percent efficiency by 2014. "Those schools that didn't meet that target were severely punished," she noted.
The result of NCLB was to "de-legitimize public education" and pressure districts to "fire bad teachers," Ravitch said. She compared NCLB to a law that says every city will be crime-free by 2014 and if they are not, the police will be fired and volunteers will take their place.
Added to the punitive measures of NCLB was Race to the Top which was announced by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2009. It "bribed the states to do the wrong thing," said Ravitch. Instead of monies going to the children who need it most, she said, "it introduced the idea that states must compete for the funds they need."
Now billionaire foundations and think tanks funded by the billionaire foundations and hedge fund managers have made school reform their pet cause, heavily investing, not in public education, but in charter schools. Chase Bank now has school reform in its budget to the tune of $325 million, all for charter schools.
The challenges facing public education are great. A million and a half children now attend charter schools and Ravitch thinks the numbers will grow dramatically.
She notes that while the media tries to picture charters as "miracles schools," it's been proven again and again they do not get better results. A major national evaluation showed 17 percent of students doing better in charters, 37 percent doing worse, and the remaining showing no difference.
School districts like Detroit, which tend to end up on the bottom of standardized test scores, are districts with "intense poverty, intense racial isolation," Ravitch noted. "Schools alone cannot right the wrongs of our society," she said.
"If getting rid of unions was the answer," she said, "we should look to the South, but it's New England that has the highest scores. Massachusetts schools have the highest performance and it's 100 percent union."
Ravitch agrees that changes are needed and outlined many proposals to insure all children receive a rich, diverse education.
For starters, she said, "Every school should have good working conditions, modern, clean, up to date, and well cared for."
She said we should do away with standardized tests, insure high quality pre-kindergarden for every child, and include a broad curriculum of the arts, sciences, history, language, physical education for all. And every child should have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument.
Regarding closing "failing" schools, she said, "Closing public schools is not an improvement strategy. It destroys social networks. When a school closes, 80 percent transfer to another low performing school where they lose ground."
She said school superintendents should understand education and respect teachers. They need to be "seasoned educators, not businessman."
Finally she encouraged states to create inspection teams. But she does not envision these as a punitive or anti-union force. Rather, their purpose should be to analyze the problems a particular school with the aim of providing additional resources.
Of course there is much more. Those who want to dig deeper should read Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
Photo: Diane Ravitch signs a copy of her book at the Wayne State University forum. (PW/John Rummel)