For some time now, Diane Ravitch has been hoping to get a chance to speak with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about public education policy. Finally, she did.
The meeting was not long, and Ravitch did not mince any words, telling her that President Obama’s education corporate-reform policies have been “a disaster.” Ravitch, describing the recent conversation, said in an email:
I am supporting her vigorously in this election but have no idea what she will do about K12 education. My first statement when I met her last Sunday [Aug. 28] was, “The Obama education policies have been a disaster. I hope you will go in a different direction.” She nodded her head “yes, yes, yes.” I told her that she must rethink federal support for charters because they are becoming the new segregation academies, especially in the South, and taking us back to pre-1954. She was surprised. She has probably heard no criticism of charters from staff.
It’s not clear what Clinton was agreeing with, or if she was agreeing at all with Ravitch but simply acknowledging that she was listening. The Clinton campaign, asked to respond, did not dispute the account. A campaign official who asked not to be identified said, however, that while Clinton and Obama “may have different views on certain education issues, she does not believe that his presidency record on education has been ‘a disaster.'”
Ravitch is an education historian, a research professor at New York University and a best-selling author. Her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” lifted her to the position of titular leader of the growing movement against corporate school reform, which includes standardized test-based “accountability” systems for schools, school “choice” and the privatization of public education. The book, which she updated this year, described her conversion from a conservative reformer who had worked in the Education Department under president George H.W. Bush to an advocate against corporate reform.
Ravitch has been a sharp critic of some of the positions that Clinton holds, such as her support for the Common Core State Standards, and has noted that some of Clinton’s top aides have been part of the reform movement. For example, the campaign’s chairman, John Podesta, founded the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit Washington-based think tank that has supported charter schools and other elements of the reform agenda. He was a keynote speaker at the 2012 annual education conference hosted by the foundation of the former Republican Florida governor Jeb Bush, who Obama called a “champion” of public education in 2011 when the two shared a stage in Miami.
O’Leary, a co-executive director of Clinton’s senior leadership team who has been advising her on education, was a fellow at the center and a big supporter of No Child Left Behind, the flawed K-12 law that ushered in an era of standardized test-based “accountability” systems for schools and districts, as well as charter schools.
Clinton has expressed support for charter schools but has also critiqued them, such as in an interview late last year with journalist Roland Martin, when she said that most charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Many school reformers were upset about Clinton’s remarks, and O’Leary published a piece online trying to smooth over the situation, writing:
So let’s cut right to the chase: For decades, Hillary Clinton has been a strong supporter of both public charter schools and an unflinching advocate for traditional public schools, their teachers and their students. She knows that all public schools play a role in providing pathways for every child to live up to their potential. This isn’t anything new. She’s been saying it for decades.
The episode points to the tight rope that Clinton — who was endorsed last year by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — has attempted to walk on education reform, trying to appeal to both reformers and their critics. This past summer, she was both applauded and booed when she spoke at the annual convention of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, with the boos coming when she mentioned charter schools, which critics say are part of the privatization of public education. She said:
“When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America. Rather than starting from ideology, let’s start from what’s best for our kids.”
In June, Ravitch ran a post on her blog titled “Will Hillary Abandon the Disastrous Policies of the Obama Administration?” Shortly after that, Ravitch posted a Change.org petition started by a teacher asking Clinton to meet with Ravitch to hear her views on public education. By late July, Ravitch had decided that she would fully support Clinton and wrote a post saying so, repeating it since then.
Ravitch never did secure a formal meeting with Clinton, so she found a way to have an informal one — and she didn’t mince words. In a blog post on Aug. 30, titled “I’m With Her — Literally,” Ravitch said that she had just attended a fundraising event for Clinton. She wrote:
I have met her on several occasions in the past, beginning in 1984, when I stayed overnight at the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock while visiting the state to give a lecture. Although she has met many tens or hundreds of thousands of people over the years, she always remembers me (as does Bill).
I had a few minutes to talk to her privately. I gave her my “elevator speech” about the disaster of the privatization and testing policies of the past 15 years, and the need for a revival of support for public schools.
The post didn’t say whether Clinton responded, so I asked Ravitch about the episode. Here’s her full response:
Let’s see. I first met both Clintons in 1984, when I was giving a lecture in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. A week before, I got a call from the governor’s secretary inviting me to stay at the Governor’s house (“the White House”) in Little Rock. He came to hear me speak, asked friendly questions, and a state trooper drove us to Little Rock, where Hillary was waiting. We sat around the kitchen table and talked for an hour.
When he was president, I was invited to participate in education discussions on several occasions, and Hillary was there. I met with her privately another time to discuss preschool education. When the Clintons gave a formal dinner honoring Thomas Jefferson and showing Ken Burns’ new film about TJ, my partner and I were invited. We were first to arrive and last to leave. Plenty of time to talk to both. I last saw her in 2008, when she was campaigning on the North Fork of Long Island.
I am supporting her vigorously in this election but have no idea what she will do about K12 education. My first statement when I met her last Sunday was, “The Obama education policies have been a disaster. I hope you will go in a different direction.” She nodded her head “yes, yes, yes.” I told her that she must rethink federal support for charters because they are becoming the new segregation academies, especially in the South, and taking us back to pre-1954. She was surprised. She has probably heard no criticism of charters from staff.
I emphasized that we need to have a longer conversation because I would like to brief her about high-stakes testing, charters, opt out, and Common Core. Will I get such a meeting? I don’t know.
Asked to respond to Ravitch’s description of the conversation, Clinton spokesman Tyrone Gayle said in an e-mail:
“Hillary Clinton has made K-12 education a staple of her campaign, and as president, will continue to work to ensure that every child receives a world class education, regardless of their zip code. She’ll launch a national campaign to modernize and elevate the teaching profession, and work to ensure that when schools get it right, we replicate their practices across America. That’s why she’s supported by the AFT, NEA, educators, students, and parents across the country. In contrast, if you want to know how Donald Trump approaches education, just look at his “Trump University.” Trump University took advantage of vulnerable Americans — encouraged them to max out their credit cards, empty their retirement savings, and destroy their financial futures. Trump shouldn’t be anywhere near our children’s education.”
(Update: Adding additional comment from Clinton campaign)