From 1991 to 1993, Ravitch served as assistant secretary of research and improvement in the Education Department under President George H.W. Bush. She was, too, an early supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of his son, President George W. Bush, which ushered in the high-stakes standardized-testing movement. But when she researched the effects of the measures, she saw that NCLB’s testing requirements had turned classrooms into test prep factories and forced schools to narrow the curriculum to focus on tested subjects.
She changed her long-held views about how to improve schools and for the last decade has been speaking and writing about education reform. She also co-founded and heads the nonprofit Network for Public Education, which links people and groups that advocate to improve public schools and fight school privatization.
Ravitch became a lightning rod for criticism by supporters of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which made standardized tests more important than ever. But, at 81 years old, she is still writing and advocating for public schools. Her most recent book was published this year, “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools.”
The Network for Public Education that she leads opposes charter schools — which are publicly funded by privately managed — seeing them as part of a movement to privatize public education. It published two reports last year about how the federal government wasted millions of dollars on a program aimed at expanding the charter sector.
Charter supporters criticized the reports, but the overall story of waste and abuse in the federal Charter Schools Program helped to prompt Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to promise to end funding for the program when they were both running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Some Democratic legislators in the House also expressed concern about the program after the reports were released.
Joe Biden was Obama’s vice president but was not in the forefront of the administration’s education agenda. He has promised that if elected, he would, among other things, triple the federal funding for high-poverty schools, increase teachers salaries and ban for-profit charter schools. He has also expressed opposition to standardized testing.
In the following open letter to Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Ravitch and Carol Burris write about public education and their reaction to his public comments about school policy, saying they are encouraged.
Burris, a former award-winning principal in New York, is the executive director of the Network for Public Education. Burris has been writing for this blog for years, chronicling the effects of Race to the Top and about charter schools.
Here is the open letter to Biden about education policy, written by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris:
Dear Vice President Biden,
We write on behalf of the Network for Public Education, the nation’s largest group of volunteers and advocates for public schools in the nation, with more than 350,000 followers spread across all 50 states.
We have strongly opposed the education agenda of Donald Trump. For the first time in the history of the Department of Education, its secretary seems dedicated to the destruction of public schools. From her enthusiastic support of private school vouchers, charter schools, and virtual charter schools, Betsy DeVos has made clear that she believes that schools should be run by private agencies and as entrepreneurial start-ups, not as centers of community life, subject to democratic governance by elected school boards.
Our public schools and their students desperately need a champion. We hope you will be that champion. For two decades, our schools and their teachers have been micromanaged by misguided federal mandates that require states to judge students, teachers, and schools by standardized test scores, as though a test score could ever be the true measure of a child, a teacher or a school.
We know that you know better. At the Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh in December 2019, NPE Board member Denisha Jones asked you whether you would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools. You did not hesitate when you said, “Yes. You are preaching to the choir.”
You continued by saying, “Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.” You explained that what is most important is building a child’s confidence and you referred to evaluating teachers by test scores as a “big mistake.”
You are right in your assessment of standardized, high-stakes tests and we appreciate your response. Hold firmly to those beliefs. We understand that federal law must be rewritten to free the schools from their fixation on test scores. We count on you to make that happen, and to put an end to the legacy of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Billions of dollars have been wasted on testing during these past twenty years. It is time for a fresh vision of what education can be.
Former supporters of President Obama’s Race to the Top program will whisper in your ear to persuade you to double down on failed policies. They will try to convince you that testing is a “civil right.” It is not. In fact, standardized testing has its roots in eugenics — it was used for years as a means by which to shut out immigrants, students of color, and students who live in poverty in order to reserve privilege for affluent students, who more typically excel on standardized tests.
All children deserve a well-resourced public school filled with high-quality educational experiences. All children deserve experienced and well-prepared teachers. All children deserve schools that have counselors, social workers, librarians, and nurses. All children deserve a full curriculum, with science labs and arts programs. When schools become test-prep factories, the civil rights of children to equal education opportunities are denied.
Others will tell you that funding does not matter and that only choice and competition will improve public schools. They are wrong. Research consistently demonstrates that increases in funding make a difference in the educational outcomes of children. But we cannot tinker around the edges and expect to get dramatic results. That is why we fully support your plan to triple Title I funding while giving educators voice in how that money should be best spent.
We are pleased that you support community schools as a pathway for school improvement. During the forum, you said that “Betsy DeVos’s whole notion from charter schools to this [her blame the victim position on sexual harassment on campus] is gone,” if you are elected. We are glad that you endorse district public school improvement instead of embracing the expansion of what has become a competing alternative system whose growth has drained funding from public schools.
Banning for-profit charter schools is not enough. There are only a handful of for-profit charters, and they exist only in Arizona. There are, however, many for-profit charter management companies as well as nonprofit charter management companies whose CEOs enjoy exorbitant salaries, far exceeding the salaries of district school superintendents. These charter chains hide their lavish spending on travel, marketing, advertising, rental payments to related companies, and administrative salaries from community, state and federal taxpayers even as they claim to be public schools.
Although the policies of the states regarding charter schools are beyond your control, the Federal Charter School Program is not. A once modest program intended to spark innovation community-led charter schools is now a program that sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to corporate charter school chains. Just last month, DeVos gave $72 million to the IDEA charter chain whose chief executive officer hired a private jet on which he was the only passenger to meet DeVos in Florida. That same charter chain received over $175 million from DeVos through the Charter Schools Program in 2017 and 2018.
It is time to eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program, which is no longer needed since billionaire-directed foundations supply ample funding for new charters and charter expansion. We issued two reports last year, demonstrating that the federal Charter Schools Program is riddled with waste and fraud, having spent approximately $1 billion on schools that never opened, or that opened and subsequently closed.
Your public statements encourage us to believe that you do not intend to follow the disastrous education policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. We are hopeful that you will renounce the status quo and bring a fresh vision that supports the work of teachers and public schools.
You will receive no better counsel on public education than you will from your educator wife, Jill Biden. We have no doubt that she will advise you well. It is time to turn the page on failed policies and invest in our nation’s public schools, which enroll nearly 90 percent of all American children.
The future of our nation depends on the success of public schools and their leaders, teachers, and support staff, who even, in this crisis, are working tirelessly to educate our students and keep them fed, well, and safe. Please stand with them and with the more than 50 million children who attend district public schools.