‘Slaying Goliath’: Diane Ravitch on the fight to save America’s public schools
The Churchill Public School on West 29th St. in Cheyenne, Wy. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. / Jeffrey Beall, 2016 (Creative Commons)

In her new book Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch writes with anger—but it’s righteous anger, it’s justified and it’s what we need right now.

Ravitch, a longtime education writer and a research professor of ed­u­cation at New York University, examines the forces determined to undermine public education in America and the dogged efforts to fight back.

At first glance, this may seem to be an impossible battle. Ravitch calls the forces aligned against public schools the “Disrupters.” Though they think of themselves as reformers, the Disrupters are really about tearing down public education, not making it better.

They come from various places and bring different motivations to the table. Some Disrupters are billionaires—among them Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Philip Anschutz, and Michael Bloomberg—who believe that concepts transferred from the worlds of business and finance can apply to a public service like education. (Spoiler: They don’t.) Other Disrupters are free-market extremists who reflexively argue that any government-provided service is bad, no matter how effective or wide­spread it may be. The final component of the three-legged Disrupter stool is made up of religious pressure groups that want taxpayer aid for their private education systems.

While all of these players are important to the Disrupter game plan, the role of free-market zealots is especially important now, given that their political philosophy has gained great traction during the Trump years.

Ravitch calls them out for attacking an educational system that serves the vast majority of American children.

“They derisively refer to the schools that have educated 90 percent of the American people as ‘government schools,’ and they hate anything government-related except defense expenditures and government contracts directed to their businesses,” Ravitch writes.

But the book isn’t just a fusillade of rhetoric. Ravitch marshals an impressive collection of facts and figures to make the case against education privatization. Her examination of existing voucher plans is especially valuable. As Ravitch notes, these plans simply do not deliver. Independent evaluations of voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and the District of Columbia, she points out, show that students who used vouchers to attend private schools actually lose ground to their public school peers.

Part of the problem is that since most vouchers are for a modest amount and high-quality, high-cost private academies have no interest in accepting poor kids no matter how many vouchers they clutch, voucher students often end up attending religious schools that, because they elevate the propagation of dogma over legitimate education, can be of abysmal quality. As Ravitch notes, many religious schools hire uncertified teachers and use textbooks based on a narrow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible, excluding modern science and history.

As Ravitch rightly points out, voucher programs violate church-state separation by putting religious institutions that exist primarily to proselytize on the public dole. While she admires the work of some Cath­olic schools, she argues that they should be funded by that church, or by donors who believe in its mission of faith-based education.

What’s most frustrating is that the public does not support, and does not want, these plans. Ravitch notes that every time vouchers appear on the ballot they’re defeated, often by large margins. But, she writes, “Even when they lose, politicians, religious zealots, and billionaire ideologues perform a ‘work­around’ and find ways to offer them anyway, despite the will of the public.” (For more on this, see “The People Have Spoken: Private School Vouchers Have A Long Record Of Failure At The Ballot Box,” January 2019 Church & State.)

As is often the case in modern politics, money speaks louder than the public will. “[V]ouchers exist not because of parental demand but because of the campaign cash that libertarians and religious zealots have donated to state legislators,” she writes.

But even against this spigot of money running full force, local activists can still win—if they organize. The final third of Slaying Goliath examines the “Resistance,” a confederation of parents, teachers, good government advocates and others who simply grew tired of seeing constant efforts to dismantle public schools and decided to fight back.

Ravitch profiles several successful efforts to turn back the Disrupters, many of which were cases Americans United for Separation of Church and State had a hand in. One took place in Douglas County, Colo., where a far-right, anti-government school board approved a voucher plan in 2011. Americans United and its allies stopped it in court, and the voters also had their say. In elections in 2015 and 2017, voters removed the right-wing candidates and replaced them with public school advocates. The newly seated board quickly voted to drop a legal appeal that aimed to save the voucher plan.

In Arizona, an even more remarkable series of events took place in 2018 after six women formed a group called Save Our Schools Arizona to advocate for public education and oppose vouchers. The women had been attending legislative sessions at the state capitol in Phoenix to advocate for public education, but concluded that the lawmakers simply weren’t going to listen to them—so they took their case directly to the people.

When the legislature pas­sed a voucher plan, the women decided it was time to hit the streets—literally. They canvassed communities state­wide and collected more than 111,500 signatures to put the voucher plan on the ballot. Front groups run by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers went to court to get the measure off the ballot but failed. On election day, Arizona voters rejected the voucher scheme, with 65 percent voting no. (See “Saving Arizona,” January 2019 Church & State.)

Diane Ravitch / Jack Miller

These and similar stories recounted in Slaying Goliath are heartwarming, and Ravitch uses them to form the crux of her argument that a backlash to the Disrupters is growing. She may be right about that—but the pushback might be coming too late. Thanks to Trump, the U.S. Supreme Court is stacked with voucher-friendly conservatives. In a pending case from Montana, the high court may rule later this year that, under certain circumstances, states can be required to direct taxpayer support to private religious schools through voucher plans.

The situation is indeed dire, but reading Ravitch’s well-written and well-researched book will lift your spirits. Ravitch reminds us that the old-fashioned concept of the public good still means something to Americans, and she speaks boldly and without apology in favor of public education as the prime example of that concept. She also lets us know that if we lose our public schools, our foundational structures will not be far behind.

Best of all, Ravitch pulls no punches when she reminds us what’s at stake: the very survival of public education. Near the end of the book, she eloquently writes, “The question that more and more Americans—parents, teachers, administrators, grandparents, and concerned citizens—are asking is whether we as a nation can continue on the path of blowing up our public education system without doing serious damage to the future of our nation and our democracy. Across the country, in state after state, the answer is ‘no.’”

The answer must continue to be “no” to vouchers, privatization schemes, and taxpayer-funded religious education, and “yes” to appropriately funded public school systems accountable to the people and willing to serve all comers. Ravitch’s book has outlined the threats and shown that the Disrupters can be turned back.

The rest is up to us.

Reposted by permission of the author. The original publication in ‘Church & State’ can be seen here.

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools
By Diane Ravitch
Knopf, 2020
336 pp., 40 photos, $27.95
ISBN 978-0-525-65537-4


Rob Boston
Rob Boston

Rob Boston is senior adviser and editor of Church & State, Americans United for Separation of Church and State's monthly membership magazine. Boston is the author of four books, most recently, Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do (Prometheus Books, 2014).