Fear of Freedom Leaves Only Faith Healing for Our Schools

Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling’s failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.

Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.

And then there’s the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.

Unfortunately, Ravitch’s apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work:  to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.

And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.

Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”

We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.