Bill Moyers
April 2, 2014
Web Extra: Public Schools for Sale?

BILL MOYERS: You have said that there are some good charters. And they're like the cover for all the bad things that are going on. And the bad things are not hard to find. Tell me about the chain of charters owned by Andre Agassi.

DIANE RAVITCH: Andre Agassi was a spectacular tennis player. I used to love watching him play. He opened a charter school in Las Vegas-- which has been-- had a lot of turmoil. He decided that since he had one run charter school, he should run many. Now he's a high school dropout. But he is raising $750 million from equity investors in California. He's now opening a chain of charter schools across the country. Why are we turning children and public money over to athletes, to rappers, to celebrities simply because of their name? This is not going to improve American education. This is insane.

BILL MOYERS: I read on your website about the American Indian Model Schools in Oakland, California. Tell me about them.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, this is a school that has been highly, highly praised as the best charter school in the country. And what happened was-- it's called the American Indian Model Charter School. And back in around 2000 it went from being predominantly Native American, to mostly Asian American. And has some of the highest test scores in the state of California. They changed the population to get those high test scores. And the guy who took it over-- an audit a couple years ago showed that close to $4 million had been diverted to his private businesses. Now, this is not a for-profit charter school. But-- nearly $4 million of public funds was diverted to private businesses. This has not been resolved. He's no longer running it. And millions of dollars moved somewhere else other than to the education of the children. They also put ads out in the paper saying, "We need teachers. We don't want any liberals or multiculturalists.

BILL MOYERS: Then there's Juan Rangel in Chicago who was co-chair of Rahm Emanuel's campaign for mayor.

DIANE RAVTICH: Juan Rangel opened up a chain or charters. It's the biggest chain in Chicago. He was co-chair of Rahm Emanuel's election campaign. He got $98 million from the state of Illinois to build more charter schools. And many of the contracts were going to friends and relatives of high-ranking employees of his company. And also to friends and relatives of the lobbyists for the $98 million and Juan Rangel stepped down.

That seems to be a charter-school problem wherever there is deregulation. Arizona is the capital of crony capitalism and nepotism because it is not illegal to have a conflict of interest or nepotism in Arizona unless charters want to be subject to those laws, they are free of those regulations and laws. And so there are charter schools in Arizona run by-- where everyone on the board is members of family. And where the contracts are given out to family members, and it's perfectly legal. Also, for-profit charters in Arizona are not required to disclose how or where they spend their money. But this kind of thing is happening in charters across the country. Some of them for profits, some of them not for profits. Some of the not-for-profits have C.E.O.'s who are making $400,000 a year. Running one school or two schools or a handful of schools.

BILL MOYERS: So this constellation of privatization, forces that you described in here includes Democrats and Republicans, billionaires, what you call the "billionaire boys club," religious organizations that want their children to be taught religion in schools. It-- for-profit companies, technology companies, publishing companies, I mean, it's a large constellation.

DIANE RAVITCH: It is indeed. And what's happened is that the charter movement, because it pushes the idea of consumerism, is also open the door for vouchers. Now vouchers used to be a bright line where we didn't go. And I was many years ago in very conservative think-tanks, and we had given up on vouchers. Back in the early '90s, we thought, "Well, you know, vouchers sounded like a good idea. But-- American people had voted them down every single time." There has never been a city or a state where people have voted and said, "Yes, we want vouchers for kids to go to religious schools." But we now have something like 20 states where vouchers are legal. And they come in different forms. But we now have kids learning science from a biblical, creationist point of view.

BILL MOYERS: I just read a story yesterday that we'll spend-- taxpayers will fund about a billion dollars worth of education for children going to private schools to religious schools to learn about Creationism.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, that's correct. And the charters have opened the door. And I understand how they opened the door, because they did it-- first of all saying "It's innovation." And secondly saying, "We're going to do this poor black and Hispanic kids stuck in failing schools." And that was really like fairy dust thrown in the eyes of liberals meant to fool them.

And I saw this one when I was working in these conservative think-tanks. They didn't come out and say, "We want to privatize your public schools," because that wouldn't have gotten anywhere. But the appeals to consumerism was very attractive. The idea of you want to get your child out of a school where there are bad kids and put them in the school where the bad kids aren't even allowed in.

Today we have charter schools that do not accept students with severe disabilities, or have very, very few, or only the mildest kinds of disabilities. We have charter schools that accept few English-language learners. And we have charter schools that have rules so strict, that if a child is in any way a troublemaker, they're thrown out.

So the appeal that's made to parents is "You can be a consumer, you can choose which school where there are no bad kids. Or you can send your kids to a public school, where there are bad kids. Which do you want? Do you want to be a consumer, or do you want to have a sense of civic responsibility?" So we're abandoning civic responsibility. We're abandoning a sense of the community's support in public schools, and encouraging people to say, "What's best for my child and my child only?"

BILL MOYERS: I talked just yesterday to one of my colleagues whose child goes to a charter school. She was chosen by the lottery. That's how in New York City you get into a charter school. And she was very impressed with the quality of education, with the discipline, with the environment in which her child is learning.

DIANE RAVITCH: If her child gets a low test score, he or she may be pushed out because some of these charter schools have very high attrition rates. They may have a hundred kids start and 52 kids finish because so many get left out as they progress.

BILL MOYERS: But if-- it's by lottery, and a child with a disability is chosen, the school has to take that child, doesn't it?

DIANE RAVITCH: Yes, but they don't have to keep them. They can say to them and this happens all the time. They will say, "You know, this really is not the right school for you because we don't have the staff, we don't have the resources. We're very sorry. Maybe you should think of another school."

BILL MOYERS: But you call to mind for me one of the billionaires behind charter schools here in New York, Paul Tudor Jones, worth $4.3 billion dollars. He has many admirers in the city. He seems genuinely to want to end poverty in New York City. He started a Robin Hood Foundation, which has a good record for helping poor people. It's been widely acclaimed. He said the breakdown of our public education system is the largest threat America faces. He wants longer schooldays and years, better training for teachers and principals. Seems to want serious evaluation and accountability, as you do don't you see people like him as an ally?

DIANE RAVITCH: No, absolutely not. Bill Gates, Paul Tudor Jones, Eli Broad the Walton family, these are all people, they don't need any more money. They're not trying to make money. But they have misguided ideas because they believe that by destroying public education, they're helping children, they're hurting our democracy and hurting children.

BILL MOYERS: He's already said that public schools, or the breakdown of the public schools are the biggest threat America faces internally or externally.

DIANE RAVITCH: I would take his advice on where to invest. But I would not take his advice on how to teach or how our public schools are doing. I think he is mightily misinformed. There is a poll every year done by an education magazine called Phi Delta Kappan. And every year for 25 years, they ask people, "What do you think of the American public education system?" And the numbers had been going down, down, down. Because people hear what Bill Gates says. They hear what all these advertisements say, your public schools are terrible. So they believe it. And so they get low ratings. But then when the question changes to, "What do you think of your public schools?" "Oh, my public school's great. I love my public school." The poll numbers for, "What do you think of your public schools," have never been higher than they are today. People actually like their community public school.

BILL MOYERS: How do you check the power of the corporations and the big philanthropies behind the privatization movement when everything in America right now is monetized and there's a "for sale" sign on everything?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, it is very difficult to fight, when you know that on the one hand you've got the Obama administration committed to charters and privatization. When Arne Duncan visits different cities--

BILL MOYERS: --Secretary of Education.

DIANE RAVITCH: When the secretary of Education visits cities normally goes first of all to a charter school. He goes more often to charters than he does to regular public schools. When he had his 4.3 billion to give away on Race to the Top funding one of the requirements was that the states had to agree to open more charter schools.

So you had the Obama administration and you have the Republicans absolutely solidly behind charter schools because they've always wanted school choice. And you and I, Bill are old enough to remember that school choice used to be a synonym for segregation. And we see more-- the research is overwhelming.

The charter schools are actually promoting segregation. They are more even when they're in a segregated district. They are more segregated than the districts around them. So for example in Chicago, when-- Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools, this has never happened in American history. Mayor Emanuel closed 50 public schools. He will replace them with 50 charter schools. They will all be either all Hispanic or all black. And no one's going to call the Justice Department and say, "What's going on here?" There are in Minneapolis there are charter schools that are 90% white, 100% black, a hundred percent -- almost 100% Hispanic-- completely-- Hmong. some of these charters are highly segregated. And no one seems to care. I'm very fearful that we are rolling back the decision made in 1954, which we'll celebrate the 60th anniversary this year, of Brown versus Board of Education.

BILL MOYERS: Which desegregated the schools--

DIANE RAVITCH: Which led to the desegregation of schools. And-- we see today more and more segregation. In fact, there have been a number of reports from authoritative sources saying that segregation is on the rise. Specifically because of the charter movement.

BILL MOYERS: Did you take note of the fact that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama said almost nothing about public education in the 2012 campaign?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, actually, I watched the election rhetoric very closely. I watched all three debates, I actually commented for some blog sites on the debates. And I noticed that the only time education came up was when Mitt Romney congratulated Barack Obama on the Race to the Top, which he likes very much. And then if you looked at where they stood on education, they actually agreed on everything except vouchers. Because Mitt Romney would've privatized everything with no apologies, where as Barack Obama is doing it without talking about it. So there was about a dime’s worth of difference between them, which was why there was no reason to debate education.

BILL MOYERS: Do you connect that to the money?

DIANE RAVITCH: Absolutely. If you want to run for president of the United States, you have to raise about a billion dollars. And the first place you start is Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: In an interview you did recently with-- you asked, "Why destroy public education so that a handful can boast they have a charter school in addition to their yacht?" were you being facetious just to make a point?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I was being partly facetious. I know from having met some of these hedge-fund guys that they boast about their charters because it's a jewel in their crown. It's like a trinket that they wear around their neck or their wrist. And I feel that at some point, and one of my hopes for the future is that when they realize it-- these charter schools don't get better results when they have the same children, they will find it's kind of boring.

Because they want is to win. And right now, winning means destroying public education. So if there is enough public pushback, if they begin to feel the public saying, "Stop it, leave our public schools alone. You are not teachers. You've never taught for a day in your life. We don't want you running our schools. We don't want Bill Gates running our schools. We don't want Paul Tudor Jones running our schools. We don't want determining our children's future."

BILL MOYERS: Hedge-fund managers refer to public education as an emerging market. What do they get from it?

DIANE RAVITCH: They see this as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to become active in creating new apps and getting new ways to deliver instruction. And they believe that to the extent that you can monetize education, you attract people with innovative ideas. So you might, for example, come up with a way to have only one teacher to a hundred children. And that would save a lot of money. So they're looking both for cost cutting and also for innovation. But know you also have to ask where do they want their own children to go. They don't want their own children to be educated in front of a computer. They want them in the school that has 12 children in a classroom, that has beautiful facilities, that has the arts and all the things that money can buy. So you know, it's always been kind of a low star of mine. Or at least it is-- certainly is now. Let's see where they send their children. And let's try to make all of our schools that good.

BILL MOYERS: When you were in the Bush administration, assistant secretary of Education, you were critical of public schools. You were beginning to say, "We should have choice in education,"

And you were with all those conservative think-tanks for a number of years, thinking through these issues. And then you come out so strongly having changed your mind. Was there a moment, an experience, an "aha" drama that turned you around?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, there wasn't a single moment. And it wasn't in a flash, that it all came to me that it was all wrong. In the early 2000s, after No Child Left Behind was enacted, starting about, well, 2005, 2006, I realized No Child Left Behind's not working And from that point forward all the misgiving I had begin to come together. It was a process really of years of saying, "I was wrong." And in these times, in this society, it is so unusual to have somebody say those three words, "I was wrong." And it didn't happen overnight, but I was wrong and I'm going to do the best I can for what time remains for me to try to set things right.

BILL MOYERS: The book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Diane Ravitch, thank you for being with me.


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