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Diane Ravitch and the Corporate Reign of Error

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I've been teaching for almost thirty years, and I don't know precisely when my colleagues and I became public enemy number one. But after reading Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch I'm getting a pretty good handle on why.

Corporate reformers like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family seem to believe teachers have done a disservice to kindergarteners by allowing them to blow bubbles in their milk and push trucks around on the floor. Why weren't we training them to take valuable multiple-choice exams? Why did an entire generation of Americans, including public school teachers, misdirect its energies by trying to eradicate poverty? Couldn't we just fervently ignore it, as corporate reformers have done so successfully?

In Reign of Error, Ravitch demonstrates how, by ignoring poverty, America has managed to shift blame to public schools for its consequences. That's clear when the Governor of New York declares schools with poor test scores deserve the "death penalty," and the mayor of Chicago closes 50 schools in one fell swoop. The fact that all so-called failing schools have high percentages of high-needs kids is either attributed to coincidence or ignored completely. Standard practice is to replace them with privately run schools that generally perform either no better or much worse. Still, no one can argue they don't place more tax money into the pockets of investors.

Reign of Error shows us corporate reform is largely about where the money goes. Americans are led to believe teachers earn too much, and entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch and the Walmart family earn too little. To correct this inequity, corporate reformers work to erase collective bargaining, unionism, teacher tenure, and other outrages that have left middle-class people able to make a living. This, of course, is all done in the name of helping children.

The most trendy way to redirect public money into private hands is via charter schools. If charters don't have unions, they don't have to worry about collective bargaining. If they largely exclude learning disabled and ESL students, they not only improve their test scores, but also save a ton of money on mandated services. Charter trailblazer Geoffrey Canada, who pays himself a half-million per year, turned away an entire student cohort rather than deal with their impending scores.

Ravitch points out in detail the excellent investment opportunities charters can provide. People who have enough money to really appreciate it can get more of it before it's frittered away on the education of impoverished children. They save even more money for needy rich people by hiring less-qualified instructors, thereby cutting teacher salaries. And wealthy foreigners have literally bought green cards via investing in charters

Charters are all about choice. They therefore choose whether they're public or private depending on the circumstances. Their reps go to court to prevent audits, because in those cases they're private schools. But they happily accept government support because in those cases they're public schools. And even if they fail on test scores, the sole criterion by which corporate reformers judge schools, it makes no difference. They're still, evidently, providing the all-important choice of where our still-needy children will fail these tests.

Reign of Error shines a bright light on cyber charters, which save quite a bit of cash for eager investors. Unlike brick and mortar charters, cybers cannot jack up rents 900% for profit. But they make up for it in other ways. Cyber charters divert many millions that might otherwise be wasted on live teachers and human interaction with children. While graduation rates are abysmal, and a CREDO study found 100 percent of them perform worse than public schools, there is no denying their immense profitability.

On every page of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch paints a portrait that's conspicuously absent from mainstream media. She shows us a tangled web, and paints every thread with an arrow pointing to where our tax dollars are really headed. Anyone who's interested in the true meaning of corporate reform needs to read this book. If you're already focused on what moves and motivates our educational system, it will surely sharpen that focus. If not, it will be an eye-opener.

And for the naysayers, Ravitch goes into detail about what America would do if it really wanted to help children, rather than simply test them and redirect public money. Here's hoping that school boards and mayors everywhere read this book.