Sophist’s Choice

Published January 5, 2021

The latest anti-school choice rant comes to us courtesy of Diane Ravitch, “a historian of education,” who is the Arthur Clarke of her field. When she writes, the reader is treated to science fiction dosed with a substantive amount of snake oil for good measure. In the current New York Review of Books, Ravitch’s “The Dark History of School Choice” is laden with cherry-picked half-truths and a level of fearmongering guaranteed to put a satisfied smirk on the face of every teacher union leader.

Reviewing several books on the subject, she does correctly cite a few circumstances where the push for the privatization of schools was used to promote racial segregation, but her 3,700-word tirade is very light on facts, and is instead primarily an excuse to bash Betsy DeVos, Christianity and free market policies in education.

As director of policy at EdChoice Jason Bedrick notes, there have been seven studies examining the effect of private school choice on racial integration. Six found positive effects and one showed no significant statistical difference. Another important piece of data conveniently absent from Ravitch’s screed is that a recent American Federation for Children poll conducted by Beck Research – a Democratic polling firm – finds that nationally, school choice is very popular with Latinos – 82 percent support it, while African-Americans are 68 percent in favor. It is important to note that this poll was taken in January 2020, before the teacher unions strong-armed school districts into ditching in-person learning.

At the same time that Ravitch repeatedly disparages charter schools, which she pointedly refers to as the “charter industry,” the results of another recently released study finds that, nationwide, students in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did students in the district sector, and more impressively they succeed with much less funding. Additionally, the results of a new study by Reason Foundation director of school choice Corey DeAngelis reveal that the “estimated effect of a charter school law translates to about a 10% decrease in the suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds.” Again, this study was done before the ubiquitous lockdowns made childhood depression and suicidal ideation so much worse. Additionally, charters have outpaced traditional public schools during the current pandemic because they are typically less bureaucratic and more autonomous.

Speaking of Covid, Ravitch penned a piece for Education Week last April, in which she claimed that “The Coronavirus Just Might End School Privatization Nonsense.” She insisted that when school resumes in the fall of 2020, “teacher-bashing and public-school-bashing will be definitely out of place.” Ravitch snidely added, “The billionaires who have been funding the anti-public-school campaign for the past decade might even have the decency to find other hobbies.” She also maintained that the “public in general does not support either charters or vouchers.”

Perhaps she isn’t aware of the aforementioned poll and many similar surveys which shows minorities are heavily in favor of choice. Regarding parents stepping up to support “public” schools – I wouldn’t be so sure. In fact, at this time parents are ditching their traditional public schools in record numbers. Just a few of the myriad examples:

While no one knows exactly what a post-lockdown education world will look like, it is very clear that government schools are going to take a hit, and that the coronavirus will certainly not put an end to “privatization nonsense.”

It’s typical that Ravitch, a teacher union zealot, does not acknowledge the racist history of labor unions in the U.S. Writing in Commentary in 1959, Herbert Hill asserts that in various industries “trade unions practice either total exclusion of the Negro, segregation (in the form of ‘Jim Crow’ locals, or ‘auxiliaries’), or enforce separate, racial seniority lines which limit Negro employment to menial and unskilled classifications… In the South, unions frequently acted to force Negroes out of jobs that had formerly been considered theirs.” Also, in a 2010 piece for the Cato Institute, Paul Moreno wrote on the issue, and includes the following about the American Federation of Labor (Randi Weingarten, please take note.):

The AFL kept the National Association of Machinists out of the federation because of its constitutional color bar, but then let it in after the union shifted the racial exclusion from its constitution to its initiation ritual (Mandel 1955: 34–37). Later, the federation ceased requiring even gestures like these. Blacks were relegated to “federal” union status, at the mercy of the larger national unions, who thus “took possession of the Negro.” (AFL founder) Samuel Gompers dismissed black workers’ pleas for equal treatment as demands for “special treatment” (Foner and Lewis 1978–84, IV: 10).

If someone wants to expose a “dark history” of racism, the unions are a great place to start. But Ravitch, who has dealt in sophistry for much of her professional life, would never go there. She’s got an agenda; facts be damned.

[Originally posted on California Policy Center]