THE BLOG
08/19/2013 10:09 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

The Folly of a Preemptive & Deceptive Attack on Diane Ravitch's New Book

Writing here in The Huffington Post, the former press secretary for Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a pre-emptive attack on the forthcoming book from Diane Ravitch -- a book he hasn't read. One particular part of that post caught my eye.

The author, Peter Cunningham, first chastises Ravitch for criticizing "alternative educational approaches such as charter schools... well-meaning and hard-working organizations like Teach for America..." He then writes this:

"What she will not do [in her new book] is offer a realistic alternative that will ensure that poor and low-income children receive a high quality education. She will say that a big part of the problem is poverty -- which no one disagrees with. She will call on America to invest more in fighting poverty, as if we have not spent tens of trillions of dollars fighting poverty since the New Deal and the Great Society and will spend tens of trillions more."

Yes, the total spent in the U.S. since the 1940s in "fighting poverty" (all social programs?) is very high. And it seems reasonable, given the rising levels of inequality in the U.S., to assume that the future will indeed see a much more such spending. But why is a former press secretary in a Democratic administration parroting deceptive poverty talking points straight from the right-wing Heritage Foundation? (See here, for one of many Heritage examples.)

The problem with the arguments of Mr. Cunningham and the Heritage Foundation is that the numbers here say zilch about the gap between spending and need. If Mr. Cunningham instead paid attention to the work done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, he'd learn about growing income inequality, about the effects of welfare reform in weakening the safety net for poor families, and more generally about shrinking general assistance for those poor families.

Although (like Cunningham) I have not seen an advance copy of Ravitch's new book, I did read a review that says the second half of the book offers an alternative agenda, and my hunch is that it does go beyond a direct focus on poverty. (The Amazon description similarly states that the book puts forth "a plan for what can be done to preserve and improve" public education.) But if the book's recommendations did in fact address only poverty, it would go much, much further toward "offer[ing] a realistic alternative that will ensure that poor and low-income children receive a high quality education" than do charter schools and TFA.

Speaking for myself and for Stanford professor Prudence Carter, my co-editor of "Closing the Opportunity Gap," there is plenty of room for both school-based and outside-of-school improvements, and we have laid them out with some specificity. We as a nation need not be trapped in Cunningham's Hobson's Choice of the failed status quo reform agenda versus no reform at all.

P.S.: Prof. Paul Thomas offers an additional reaction to Mr. Cunningham's post.