As you already know, I’ve written a short piece for the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog on Parent Trigger laws, decrying the mindsets shared by education traditionalists and even many Beltway reformers that families are somehow incapable of making smart decisions on overhauling schools. As one would expect, both examples of this condescending thinking are on display courtesy of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and Amy Wilkins, the Education Trust’s otherwise estimable communications czar.
Once again proving that she couldn’t think her way through a simple policy discussion, Ravitch trots out an easy to discredit class warfare argument: That Parent Trigger laws aren’t credible because school reform philanthropists such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have provided support. Because of this, Parent Power groups who support the passage and use of Parent Trigger laws can’t possibly be legitimate — and those families who also support it are also dupes who are serving as fronts for charter school operators.
Of course, she fails to mention fact that two of the leading Parent Power groups, including the Connecticut Parents Union and its allied organization, the State of Black CT Alliance, have never received a dime of such funding. She also fails to mention that charter school operators are generally not all that interested in turning around failure mills and, as seen in Connecticut, haven’t always played well with Parent Power groups (points I made earlier in the Times piece).
On any intellectual level, what would be wrong with charter operators taking over and overhauling failure mills if parents choose them to do the job? After all, one of the most-successful school overhauls so far is the Locke High School effort in Los Angeles, which is currently being overseen by Green Dot Public Schools, one of the nation’s foremost school operators. And given the success of charter operators such as Green Dot and KIPP, (along with some for-profit operators), ditching failed district management for successful, high-quality operators would not be such a bad idea at all.
The fact that some groups are receiving those dollars hardly makes their view illegitimate — or makes parents pawns. Based on her logic, education traditionalists such as her can’t also legitimately fight for their views. After all, Ravitch is an officer of one status quo defender, Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters, which collected $25,000 from National Education Association coffers in 2010-2011; the group (along with Haimson) is also a founding member of Parents Across America, whose members also include fellow-travelers such as Rita Solnet. The fact that Ravitch also collects generous speaking fees from NEA and American Federation of Teachers affiliates for peddling what can at best be called her faux Camille Paglia act also makes the argument rather suspect — and the class warfare rhetoric especially rank.
As I always say on these pages, it’s not about having money or even necessarily the sources of it. After all, NEA funding has found its way to school reform outfits such as Center for American Progress while the Gates Foundation also funds the NAACP. What matters more is what is done with it. Last I checked, what Ravitch and her, umm, corporate sponsors among NEA and American Federation of Teachers affiliates do with those dollars is absolutely amoral. They defend a system that restricts the ability of families — especially those from poor and minority households — from helping their kids get the high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures they need in an increasingly knowledge-based world. From opposing the expansion of charter schools and vouchers, to the intimidation tactics against families demanding reform of failure mills in their own communities, Ravitch and her fellow-travelers essentially say that parents should simply accept mediocrity and educational malpractice. And on its very face, this is morally unacceptable and intellectually dishonest.
Ravitch displays more of the latter in her second argument: That Parent Trigger laws are “terrible” because a majority of families, tired of schools failing their children, dare to use democratic means to force overhauls of schools subsidized by their tax dollars. Given Ravitch’s longstanding pretensions to supporting “democratic processes” in running schools and districts, one would think Parent Trigger laws would be up her proverbial alley. But the reality is that Ravitch doesn’t believe that families should have any meaningful role in school decisionmaking. This is nothing new; Ravitch has made this clear ever since she wrote The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, in which she chided families in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville (scene of the infamous Parent Power battle) for rightly demanding the ability to directly hold schools and teachers accountable for student achievement. As with her fellow education traditionalists, Ravitch thinks that families should be rarely seen and never heard except when they admirably parrot her bromides (or when she can blame them for what is really the systemic failures of American public education).
But Ravitch’s intellectual dishonesty is to be expected. This month alone, she furthered damaged her bona fides as an educational thinker with her facts-bereft New York Review of Books critique of Arne Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education. Certainly one can find fault with Duncan’s handling of the No Child waiver gambit; he must also take heat for teaming up with Sen. Tom Harkin on the rather shady targeting of for-profit colleges. But Duncan, along with President Barack Obama, has done an otherwise fine job in pushing systemic reform — especially in pushing for performance-based teacher evaluations and the expansion of charter schools. More importantly, as New Schools Venture Fund’s Benjamin Riley pointed out in his comments, Ravitch’s spectacular errors (including her failing to note Duncan’s derision of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful abolition of collective bargaining privileges) prove once again that she cannot support her own arguments with facts.
Wilkins’ argument, on the other hand, is less one based out of any intellectual deception. Instead, Wilkins exhibits a failing typical among Beltway reformers (and one that I’ve criticized over the past few weeks): The idea that parents are too unsophisticated to make smart decisions. Declaring that “the trigger seems promising”, Wilkins then goes off to offer an argument similar to that of Ravitch: That Parent Trigger laws may serve as stalking horses for for-profit charter school operators. From where she sits, “these companies will use the trigger to exploit desperate, frustrated families” while offering low-quality education.
Certainly there are charter school operators who shouldn’t be allowed to control schools of any kind. But that’s not necessarily a problem of for-profit operators alone. Considering that some of the most-spectacular failures within the charter school movement have happened with nonprofit outfits such as a credit recovery-driven program run by Indianapolis’ Flanner House social services nonprofit (which was shut down after discovery of alleged fraud and misspending of public funds), one can easily say that low-quality education isn’t just a problem of for-profits alone. Wilkins also indulges in a logical fallacy: That somehow profit is a bad thing. If anything, modern society and all of the wonderful technologies, services, and improvements in life and health that we have experienced is largely due to the efforts of companies that both pursue profit (because their first obligation is to repay creditors and shareholders who finance their efforts) and innovation (which keeps them around as going concerns). EdTrust and its fellow reformers, for example, are quite dependent on the beneficence of philanthropists and foundations which earn their money in the for-profit world.
If Wilkins really wants to do something about improving the quality of charters, she would start by demanding that states do a better job of selecting charter school authorizers charged with selecting and overseeing the schools. This would include getting school districts out of the business (they shouldn’t be in charge of authorizing charters in the first place). Another solution lies in expanding the pool of potential charter operators to include families and community groups, both of which can use digital tools to launch their own schools.
Meanwhile, the bigger problem with Wilkins’ argument is that it assumes that parents aren’t smart enough to make good decisions in structuring school operations. As I made clear earlier this month in my critique of similar statements from Andy Rotherham, this is hardly the case. The Parent Trigger efforts attempted so far have involved both a mix of families teaming up with charter school operators, and families such as those at Adelanto, Calif.’s Desert Trails Elementary School (which want to operate schools on their own). Families aren’t going to be perfect in making decisions. But that’s a given: Human beings aren’t perfect at doing anything. But to argue that families can’t run schools (and cannot figure out ways to reach common ground with those families who may not support the effort) ignores the reality that this is done every day by families in every aspect of life.
One can argue that Wilkins’ suggestion for a Parent Trigger process — allowing families to decide to pursue a takeover, and then choose from a group of high-quality operators with proven track records — isn’t such as a bad idea. At the same time, Wilkins and other reformers need to remember what they are supposed to be: Men and women who believe that families should be the lead decision-makers in education, and can make smart decisions so long as they have high-quality information and some guidance of their choice. In short, the very opposite of Ravitch and her ilk.