NJ's "Two-Tier System of Widening Inequality"

Diane Ravitch, famous education historian, has just published her 18th book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Her tome has aroused rapturous reviews, not to mention a plethora of newsprint. (Here’s a more balanced review from Chester Finn.) Much of the attention focuses on her change of heart, well documented in her blog “Bridging Differences.” Once a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer, she’s now reconsidered her views and hung up her boots with defenders of traditional American public education, well represented in New Jersey with its lack of school choice and fierce opposition to accountability. A visit to the Garden State might prove enlightening for Dr. Ravitch.

Ravitch believes that the education reform movement’s emphasis on school choice and accountability is motivated by greed, animosity towards teachers, and badly misguided policy. Arne Duncan is a thinly-disguised profiteer. Race To The Top is a malignant conspiracy engineered by the Gates Foundation, and No Child Left Behind is “a system that borders on institutionalized fraud.” Charter schools are “a great business opportunity” run by “right-wing ideologues who [see] them as a chance to bust teachers’ unions.” Accountability is a hoax.

Therefore, she concludes, we need to abandon school choice and accountability because it creates“a two-tier system of widening inequality” which will “be an ominous development for public schools and our nation.

Certainly in NJ, parents are starting to choose public charter schools for their children as an alternative to chronically failing traditional schools, although we can only serve 22,000 kids out of a total public school population of 1.37 million. Additionally, the road towards teacher and school accountability, as in much of the country, has been rutted with union opposition and data systems poorly designed to accommodate the necessary metrics. NJEA resistance is intensely strong. Some charters fail. Ravitch writes in her blog, “Nothing good can come of any reform that teachers do not embrace.” But Ravitch’s logic -- because education reforms have had graceless moments, we should abandon the entire enterprise – is badly flawed.

For upper and middle class families, perhaps, Ravitch’s thesis is palatable. In Moorestown or Saddle River, NJ towns of wealth and opportunity, who needs school choice and accountability? But her thesis self-destructs when we look at poor minority kids, and her predilection for status quo education starts acquiring a flavor of noblesse oblige, a kind of arrogance that privileges abstract principles over the lot of the impoverished.

Dr. Ravitch should pay a visit to Pleasantville High School in Atlantic County, largely comprised of poor Black and Hispanic kids. 42% speak Spanish as their first language. 20% are classified as eligible for special education services. 51.7% of the students fail the High School Proficiency Assessment in language arts. 68.7% fail the HSPA in math. 44.5% fail the HSPA’s three times and proceed to the Special Review Assessment, a back-door-to-diploma scam engineered so that no child can fail.

There’s no high school-level charter school in Pleasantville so there’s no school choice. Our embryonic interdistrict school choice program for Atlantic County is limited to Folsom Elementary School, so high schoolers are out of luck, even if they could get in. Accountability? You know the test scores. Cost per pupil at Pleasantville High is $16,307 per child. Another fun fact: in September 2007 five members of the Pleasantville Board of Education were arrested as part of a federal corruption case for accepting bribes from insurance and roofing firms.

Here’s the irony: Ravitch’s fear of “a two-tier system of widening inequality” is here already, at least in NJ. The children and families in Pleasantville live it every day. Their only hopes are tied to the very principles of education reform – school choice and accountability -- so easily dismissed by Dr. Ravitch and her posse of ardent fans. She writes of dissenters, “they do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades.” Ah, but we do recognize schools as anchors. We just don’t believe that schools like Pleasantville – flimsy, assailed by the detritus of low standards and corruption – represent our children’s values, traditions, and ideals. These kids deserve a choice. By Ravitch's reckoning, they shouldn't get that.