by Dmitri Mehlhorn
The attacks on Obama’s education leadership showcase the name-calling, deafness to evidence, and shameless hypocrisy of the extremist anti-reform movement in education.
Recall Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis mocking Duncan for being an elitist (Lewis is an Ivy League graduate who owns several homes).
More recently, Valerie Strauss posted that Duncan’s successor John King has “limited or no experience in public education” (Strauss is a journalist with no teaching experience).
As always, however, the prize for Orwellian speech in attacking goes to Diane Ravitch.
In April, she wrote: “We need leadership that believes in the joy of learning and in equality of educational opportunity. We have not had either for 15 years” (a period of time going back to when Ravitch was an influential leader in the world of education, and when she was actually advocating everything Duncan did).
A few days ago, Ravitch criticized a Politico story about Duncan for failing to underscore “Arne’s persistent support for privatization of public education,” including his hiring of Ted Mitchell, a former investor who Ravitch archly notes earned $750,000 per year before becoming a public servant. (Ravitch does not disclose her own net worth, which comes entirely from the profits she’s earned from selling books and speeches taking positions on education policy, but most educated guesses put her net worth far above that of any Obama official).
These attacks on the resumes and credentials of the people who manage Obama’s education policies, including the President himself, are alternately despicable and laughable. Just for grounding, let’s recall some facts.
Our President, Barack Obama, grew up without great wealth, a black male raised by a single mother. He worked with inner-city kids as a community organizer, and wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope that our public school system is “an indefensible status quo.”
He appointed Duncan as education secretary in part because Duncan had worked in education with disadvantaged children starting with volunteer work at his mom’s nonprofit (the Sue Duncan Children’s Center, which has provided afterschool services to poor children since 1961), and extending through time at a charter school and then running all Chicago schools.
Incoming Secretary of Education John King is a black son of two public school employees, both of whom died while he was still attending public schools. King credits his own public school teachers with helping him thrive despite being orphaned. He is married with two daughters. Since high school, King has dedicated his life to education, serving as a teacher and later learning to be a principal and leader of successful public charter schools, and then advancing to run New York’s Department of Education and then serve as the Deputy to the Secretary of Education for the USA.
Defenders of the status quo like to say that experience matters, that time in a classroom – even after many years – matters to understanding classrooms. If true, presumably other experiences also matter greatly to running an education bureaucracy: such as, for example, attending public schools as a student; or having parents who work for the schools as teachers and administrators; or having the experience of being an orphan, or a student of color, or both; or having the experience of teaching in a classroom; or having the experience of running a school; or having the experience of working in a large education bureaucracy. All of those experiences are very hard to learn quickly, or to just read about. Ideally, if experience matters, you’d want all of those in your national education secretary. And, of course, John King has all of those experiences. His depth of experiences is particularly impressive by contrast to those of his major critics, none of whom has his mix of experience as a disadvantaged public school student, experience teaching, experience running schools, experience running a state system, experience as a parent, and experience navigating the federal bureaucracy.
Turning from credentials to other themes, let’s consider Ravitch’s claim that Duncan and King are “privatizers” who want to use the “corporate” model for education. Ravitch repeats this claim a lot, which I’m sure never fails to surprise King, Duncan, and Obama, who between the three of them have never worked once at a corporation. But Ravitch seems to mean “privatization” and “corporate” to refer to the nonprofit charter schools that Obama and his team have encouraged through federal Race to the Top funding and NCLB waivers. Since Ravitch herself has declined to send her own children to public schools, she may not fully understand. So, let’s compare the “public” school that Ravitch defends to these public charter schools.
The “government run” schools that Ravitch refers to as “public” don’t often achieve the nostalgic ideas of education that Ravitch sometimes describes in her fact-addled flights of journalistic fancy. For poor children living in poor neighborhoods, these government-run schools don’t deliver the public goods of public mixing, public deliberation, and equality of opportunity. The rich folks left long ago, buying their way into wealthier enclaves where they can exert personal social pressure over teachers and principles (their professional neighbors and social peers) to make sure the school works for their kids. Left behind, along with residential segregation and the long-term wealth effects of slavery and racism, are poor families with far fewer resources and far less leverage over their local teachers and schools. Many of these parents cannot afford to buy homes in the rich neighborhoods, or send their kids to private school, or regularly take time off to volunteer for the PTA and thereby get to know and influence the school’s staff. Rather, these kids take what they’re given by the government-run local monopoly, which uses tax law to get revenue and compulsory education law to get students.
As a thought experiment, imagine how Ravitch would react if she or her partner or her children had health needs. They went to their favorite hospital, but were told that they could not use their Medicare benefits at that hospital, because it’s a nonprofit. If they wanted to use their Medicare, they would have to go to the government-run hospital closest to their house – and, by the way, when they arrived there, they would have to see whatever doctor the local hospital chose to assign them.
Given her own personal history, we know for certain that Ravitch would simply pay out-of-pocket for that particular hospital service. Even better, she might write a book celebrating government-run hospitals and attacking private and nonprofit hospitals. Ravitch’s book would sell a great number of copies to the publicly run hospitals and their staff. She would earn speaking fees from public hospital rallies. She would, based on that, be able to easily afford to move to a fantastic home in a wealthy area near a great government-run hospital. Everyone would win, except the families living in poor areas, who would suddenly be denied choice in healthcare. But Ravitch would continue to fight for them, demanding that instead of giving them the choices to attend good hospitals, the world should eliminate poverty and inequality, properly funding all government-run hospitals until that great day, long in the future perhaps, when all hospitals can be truly equal.