Passion vs. pirates

Dr. Diane Ravitch – a founding Board member of the modern Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – came to Columbus yesterday morning to speak passionately about her belief in the public school system. Reading from her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Dr. Ravitch called herself a reluctant crusader. But her belief in public schools as the “entry point to the American Dream” and her belief that public schools are under attack by the “reform agenda” which makes the system “ripe for privatization and private exploitation” compel her to speak out again and again.

She laid out her beliefs that charter schools don’t work, that high-stakes testing creates a negative impact on public schools, and that teachers are being systematically demoralized nationwide. The political and financial motivations of reformers are clear to her and she was adamant that those interests cannot be allowed to defeat the true purposes of education: “showing children that they have talents and abilities” and “to develop citizens”.

As quickly as Dr. Ravitch arrived, however, she was gone, leaving the rest of the 400+ attendees at the Public Common School Preservation Conference to take her words of grandmotherly wisdom borne of decades of hands-on experience…and turn it into war.

Yes, it’s war folks. Plain and simple. The public schools vs. “the privatizers”. The common good vs. “the pirates”. Money is hemorrhaging from public schools right into the hands of Captain Jack Sparrow. Home schoolers, charter school operators, Catholic schools, in league with legislators bound and determined to siphon every last possible nickel from the hardworking taxpayers of Ohio.

Conference organizer The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding had a good audience for their message but the constant drumbeat of us vs. them and the relentless focus on what was happening to “their money” left very little room for kids or parents.

I feel sorry for the poor “devil’s advocate” superintendent who made the mistake of asking about how open enrollment – freely practiced in many corners of Ohio far from the urban 8 – differs at all from student movement from districts to charters. Answer: it doesn’t, but it’s more about varsity sports than anything so shouldn’t really be a matter of concern.

I feel sorry for the district honcho who expressed open grief that “his money” is now being used to fund a nearby Catholic football powerhouse. Never mind that it’s the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship money that he’s talking about. That would be a “miracle school” worth talking about.

I feel sorry for the teacher who expressed that perhaps "accountability" isn't an entirely dirty word, especially when the same test scores being used to vilify charters are the ones being vilified themselves as unrepresentative of what goes on in district schools. She didn't speak again after that.

I also feel sorry for the teachers and administrators who want very much to highlight all the good that is going on in their schools in order to change public opinion about those schools. Because if they believe that the parents who’ve left don’t know exactly what’s going on in those schools, they’re going to be mighty surprised if they ever get that “exit survey” they talked about.

I truly wish that Dr. Ravitch would have been able to stick around past her brief Q&A (hijacked by a candidate for the state legislator for an impromptu stump speech) to hear about the new “movement” being launched in Ohio after the upcoming election in order to fight the war against “the privatizers”. With the power of last decade’s technology – Twitter!, YouTube!, Facebook!, PDF’s! – the home schoolers and the reformers will be targeted by a mass of administrators and teachers and union operatives (and parents too, I think) with one mighty message: STOP!

In the end, the rhetoric got downright violent, one fellow likening it to a train slamming into a bus. I can only hope that I was not alone in shivering at that image. A train full of PDFs and text messages slamming into my bus full of skeleton pirates is no laughing matter.

Hurry back, Dr. Ravitch. The movement needs you.

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