BILL MOYERS: …Charter schools are booming, and controversial. There are now more than 6,000 across the country, double the number from just a decade ago. They’re publicly funded, but privately run. And whatever you think about the merit of charter schools versus public schools, merit is no longer driving the debate. What’s driving the debate is money. The charter movement is now part of the growing privatization of public education and Wall Street sees an emerging market. Take a look at this piece published last fall on Forbes.com. Quote, “…dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…” gathered to discuss “…investing in for-profit education companies…”
There’s a potential gold rush here. Public education from kindergarten through high school pulls in more than $500 billion in taxpayer revenues every year, and crony capitalists and politicians alike are cashing in. Example, “In Ohio, two firms [both contributors to Republicans] operate 9 percent of the state’s charter schools and are collecting 38 percent of the state’s charter school funding increase…” In Philadelphia, a democratic stronghold, “…23 public schools closed for good …” last summer, “…to be replaced by charters.”
Here in New York City, progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio set out to curb the charter school poaching of public education. But in recent weeks the charter movement, bankrolled by wealthy financiers, struck back hard with a media campaign costing more than three-and-a-half-million dollars...
BILL MOYERS: ...The private buying of public education has brought a piercing cry of alarm from my guest. Once a champion of charter schools, she has changed her mind, and that was a reversal that struck home with a seismic wallop. Diane Ravitch is our preeminent historian of education. She has worked for presidents from both parties, and served as an assistant secretary of education. She’s a scholar with a popular following, in the last year alone her website has received more than 8 million visits. Her teaching, writing, and advocacy have long influenced our debate about schools and the public policies that affect them. And her latest book is a best seller, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools." Diane Ravitch, welcome.
DIANE RAVITCH: It’s wonderful to be with you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: We're talking about big money, aren't we?
DIANE RAVITCH: Absolutely. Minimum, at least, from the estimates I've seen it's a market of $500 billion. Now we--
BILL MOYERS: A year?
DIANE RAVITCH: Yes. An annual market of $500 billion. So the entrepreneurs do see it as huge opportunities to make money. There are now frequently conferences, at least annually, conferences on how to profit from the public education industry. Now I never thought of public education as an industry. But the entrepreneurs do see it as an industry.
They see it as a national marketplace for hardware, for software, for textbook publishing, for selling whatever it is they're selling, and for actually taking over all of the roles of running a school. This is what the charter movement is. It's an effort to privatize public education, because there's so much money there that enough of it can be extracted to pay off the investors. But I think what's at stake is the future of American public education. I'm a graduate of public schools in Houston, Texas, and I don't want to see us lose public education. I believe it is the foundation stone, one of the foundation stones, of our democracy. So an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.
BILL MOYERS: The people behind privatization, you say they're flush with cash. Where is it coming from? Where does this money trail start?
DIANE RAVITCH: You have to understand that firstly we do have a significant number of for-profit charter schools. They're not the majority, by any means. But they're driving a lot of the legislative changes. There is also the power of the federal government.
Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, put out $4.3 billion called Race to the Top. And he said to the states, you can't be eligible for any part of this money unless you lift your cap on charter schools. So suddenly the lure of getting that federal money made many states change their laws to open the door to many, many more charter schools.
So that's really what driven the increase in charters. But what-- the other thing that's driven them is that there is a tremendous political force of very wealthy hedge-fund managers who are investing in the charter-school industry and seeing it grow. And so they have fought for these laws. There's also a lot of charter school money going as political contributions to legislators in many of the states where the charters are booming.
BILL MOYERS: There's a move right now to change Dallas into a chartered district. And it's promoted by the billionaire John Arnold, who's been in the news recently for his views on pension plans. Do you take that sort of thing seriously?
DIANE RAVITCH: I think it has to be taken seriously because John Arnold of course wants to change public-sector pensions. And I have kind of a visceral negative reaction to the idea that someone who is a billionaire doesn't want to see a public employee retire with a decent living pension that they've put into all their life. So I don't like the idea that billionaires who have no appreciation of the importance of public education want to change it to their liking. No one elected John Arnold to do this.
But I think that Dallas is at risk. And the people of Dallas don't want this. And I think if we, if democracy works in Dallas, they will reject this idea of somehow taking Dallas and turning it, the whole city, into a charter district.
BILL MOYERS: You have said that within ten years, there'll be cities in this country without public education.
DIANE RAVITCH: I think at the rate we're moving now, we will see places like Detroit, New Orleans, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and many, many other cities where public schools become, if they still exist, they will be a dumping ground for the kids that the charter schools don't want. We will see the privatization of public education run rampant.
BILL MOYERS: But not everyone will grieve with you over the loss of public education. There are parents across the country who feel that public schools have let them and their children down. And they're looking for alternatives. They’re not going to grieve with you.
DIANE RAVITCH: One of the points that I wanted to make strongly in this book is that American public education is not failing. It's not declining. It’s not obsolete.
BILL MOYERS: Contrary to the prevailing public mythology?
DIANE RAVITCH: Absolutely. American public schools deal with immense problems. The biggest problem in our society today is that nearly 25 percent of our children live in poverty. And most of those kids will go to public schools and will bring all their problems through the door. And teachers will tell you they have kids in their classroom where a parent was murdered, where the children didn't getting anything to eat yesterday. Where the children are homeless.
These are the problems our public schools are dealing with. And they're, in most cases, doing an absolutely heroic job. But where public schools are in trouble it's because the community's in trouble. And instead of breaking up public schools and sending the kids off into the hands of some entrepreneurs, we should be addressing the needs and problems of the children.
BILL MOYERS: If the for-profit motive were taken out of charter schools, do you think they have potential?
DIANE RAVITCH: No, because I think that what charter schools should be is what they were originally supposed to be. They were originally supposed to be a collaborative, cooperating with public schools, trying to solve problems that public schools couldn't solve. The original idea was that they would go out and find their dropouts and bring them back.
They would help the kids who lacked all motivation and bring these lessons back to public schools to help them. What they have become is competitors. And they're cutthroat competitors. And in fact, because of No Child Left Behind and because of Race to the Top, there is so much emphasis on test scores, that the charters are incentivized to try to get the highest possible scores.
And now that there are so many hedge-fund people involved, they want to win. They want to say to these guys who are on another school board, my charter got higher scores than yours. So if you're going to make scores the be all and the end all of education, you don't want the kids with disabilities. You don't want the kids who don't speak English. You don't want the troublemakers. You don't want the kids with low scores. You want to keep those kids out. And the charters have gotten very good at finding out how to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Charter schools are not all bad, are they?
DIANE RAVITCH: They're not all bad. The worst thing about the charters is the profit motive. And I want to reiterate that most charters are not for-profit. Although many of the non-profits are run by for-profit organizations…
DIANE RAVITCH: I think for many people in the charter movement, that is the end game. They want to see an end to public education. They continue to say that charter schools are public schools. They are not public schools because they say in court, whenever asked, we're private corporations with a contract with the government.
In fact just recently there was a decision in New York that charter schools can't be audited by the state controller because they are not a unit of the government. In California there was a decision in the federal court saying, charter schools are not public schools. They're private corporations.
BILL MOYERS: So this puts their accountability off limits, right?
DIANE RAVITCH: Right. And in fact, in many states, the charter schools don't have to hire certified teachers. So we're moving in a direction that is harmful to democracy. That is not good for kids. And that will not improve education. And so when you say how do I feel about the charter movement, I'd say that it should return to its original purposes, which is to help the neediest kids. To seek out the kids with the lowest test scores, not the highest ones, and to do, to collaborate with public education to make it better.
But what it has turned into, and I think that Reed Hastings' speech puts that very well, is an attack on democracy and an effort to replace public education. That if 90 percent of all the kids are in charters, the other 10 percent that's left, that's called public schools, will be the dumping grounds for the kids that the charters don't want. That's a direct attack on our democracy...
BILL MOYERS: When you were on the money trail, looking at how this money influences the movement, you ran into the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC. What did you learn about ALEC?
DIANE RAVITCH: ALEC is an organization, as I discovered, that's been around since 1973. It has something like 2,000 or more state legislators who belong to it. And ALEC is very, very interested in eliminating public education.
It has model legislation, which has been copied in state after state, in some cases verbatim. ALEC wants to eliminate collective bargaining, and it's done a good job on that. It wants to eliminate any due process for teachers, so that teachers can be fired for any reason. It wants teachers to be judged by test scores. It's done a really good job of that. It wants charter schools, it has a charter legislation, it has voucher legislation; it has legislation to promote online charter schools. So the whole package of what's called reform is being pushed very hard by ALEC. It's being pushed very hard by a group called Democrats for Education Reform.
That's actually the hedge-fund managers' organization. So you get the combination of ALEC with its state level, very far-right-wing legislators, who have taken over some legislatures. For example, North Carolina is now completely ALEC-governed. And they have enacted everything in the ALEC package.
BILL MOYERS: Where does ALEC’s money come from, as you've found it?
DIANE RAVITCH: ALEC has major, major corporate funding. It's hard to find a major corporate group that is not part of the corporate sponsorship of ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: What's their motive?
DIANE RAVITCH: ALEC wants money to flow freely throughout the economy. They do not want any restraints on how they spend and where they spend. They don't even want to be audited if they could avoid that. That's why the charter schools, for example, have fought in court to prevent public audits, because they share this philosophy that what they do is their business...
What I'm hoping for is that there, somewhere out there is a senator, a governor, a congressman who will say this has to stop. Public education is an essential part of our democracy. And I don't want the hedge-fund manager's money to sell out my public schools.
BILL MOYERS: You’re almost as old as I am. What keeps you going?
DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, what really makes my juices flow is when I see billionaires picking on teachers. When I see billionaires who have never gone to public school, have never sent their children to public school, or their grandchildren, if they have them, proclaiming how schools should run and how teachers should teach.
I find myself outraged that our public school system is not being strengthened and improved. I don't want it to stay the way it is. I'm not defending the status quo. When I see a status quo that's controlled by the wealthiest people on our country in alliance with the political power in our country, it makes me want to rail against it. And I'm railing against it as best I can...
The charter schools are not outperforming the public schools. And the voucher schools don't outperform the public schools. Despite not taking the kids that they don't want, vouchers do not outperform public schools.
Evaluating teachers by test scores, which is one of the big principles of these corporate reformers, has been a disaster. There are many cities and districts that have ended up firing the teacher of the year. There are many teachers-- we are having, in fact, a huge crisis in teaching because so many teachers are leaving the profession.
There’s almost a full-frontal attack on the teaching profession so that whereas it used to be 20 years ago that the average teacher had 15 years of experience, it's now down to one or two years of experience. Teachers are leaving the profession, because they hate this being evaluated by test score business, because it’s-- what the research shows now overwhelmingly, is that it’s inaccurate, it’s flawed, and good teachers are getting bad evaluations, because they’re teaching kids with disabilities. Or if they’re teaching kids who are gifted, they also get a bad evaluation, because the kids are at the ceiling, they can’t go any higher. So, everything that these guys are pushing has actually failed already. They’re not making schools better. And you can't fail your way to success. But that's only one reason why we're winning.
The other reason is we're organizing. Students are organizing, high school students are organizing. Teachers are organizing and saying they will not give useless tests. We have superintendents speaking out. There's one on Long Island who said, when the test scores come in, I'm throwing them out. They're garbage.
We have students in college organizing against this corporate takeover. So I see all these things happening. Whether it's Tennessee or Louisiana, state of Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and I feel very hopeful that democracy will win out over big money...