Defeat Education Disruption: Diane Ravitch, Befriend Betsy DeVos

This article appeared in Forbes​.com on February 26, 2020.
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Based on her latest book, education‐​reformer‐​turned‐​resistance‐​leader Diane Ravitch is, to say the least, not a fan of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. But based on what Ravitch seems to want most, she should really be friends with DeVos, and anyone else who seeks to rein in federal education intervention.

Other people have critically reviewed Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath, and I’m not going to give it a comprehensive treatment. As they have pointed out, Ravitch struggles to say anything nice, or even humanizing, about the people with whom she disagrees, barely even conceding that “Disrupters”—especially rich ones like Bill Gates and the Koch brothers—could have decent intentions. Indeed, Ravitch declares that Disrupters like to “break things, including…the lives of students, families, and education professionals.”

Meanwhile, Ravitch is soft-spoken—silent, even—about allies such as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten having supported disruptions she trashes, such as national curriculum standards and tests. Indeed, Ravitch herself didn’t come out against the federally coerced Common Core until 2013. In contrast, little ol’ me was fighting national standards years earlier.

How could someone from the Cato Institute—which aims at “libertarian goals” Ravitch deems “zany,” especially private school choice—be so far ahead of “the Resistance?”

Easy: Many small‐​government types have long been opponents of federal education interventions and advocates of choice, both on the grounds that decentralized control beats one‐​size‐​fits‐​all. And it is top‐​down control, more than private school choice, that seems to get Ravitch’s goat. Washington has been instrumental in foisting everything from high‐​stakes testing, to “value‐​added” teacher assessments, to the Common Core, onto public schools and educators.

Ravitch and others of her disposition would do well to make common cause with private choice supporters. Indeed, with Common Core many did. Opposition was largely a fusion of libertarians, small‐​government conservatives, and educational progressives who bristled at education being reduced to a test score.

How does DeVos fit into this? She is a private school choice supporter, yes, but the Trump administration also appears to be aiming to reduce federal meddling. The Department’s latest budget proposal would combine lots of small programs into block grants over which states—not the feds—would have control. Making things even sweeter for Ravitch, folded into the grants would be the Charter Schools Program, which Ravitch and her allies have been targeting.

On the negative side, the administration is promoting a plan that would offer federal tax credits to people who donate to groups that furnish private school scholarships. It is inconsistent with a smaller federal role (and the Constitution) but at least it would not spend federal money, which is the easiest vehicle by which to deliver rules and regulations. And Ravitch and her allies need to realize something: If you do not let people leave district schools they feel cannot serve them well, without having to sacrifice their tax dollars, they have only one recourse: demand top‐​down regulation. Their only option is to plead to the state, “force them to get better,” and if that fails, “feds, you do it.”

No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, etc., did not just happen because callous billionaires said they should. Many people in many districts, and most people when looking at the system broadly, think public schooling is doing a poor job. Without choice, they will support intervention.

In the end, not only do choice advocates often want the low‐​regulation, low‐​standardization environment that Ravitch desires, choice can take the wind out of the regulation sails by giving people the ability to make their own decisions. And Ravitch, it turns out, celebrates what choice is best able to deliver: “Innovation and creativity stem from diversity of thought and action, not conformity and standardization. Our success as a society is built on our variety, not our sameness and unquestioning obedience to authority.”

Diane Ravitch, call Betsy DeVos’s office!

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book “Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.”