Diane Ravitch’s Charter Narrative Is Incomplete

Terry Ryan

Guest columnist Terry Ryan is Fordham's former vice-president for Ohio policy and programs and is now the president of the Idaho Charter School Network.

The education historian Diane Ravitch is barnstorming the country promoting her new book Reign of Error. Ravitch is a fantastic story teller who selectively uses data and anecdotes to make a sweeping indictment of education reform in America. There is certainly some harsh truth in what she writes (e.g. education consultants have made a financial killing on education reform efforts in recent years with Race to the Top being a prime example).

But, her sweeping generalizations don’t hold up when it comes to charter schools. Ravitch argues that “what’s wrong with charter schools is that they originally were supposed to be created to collaborate with public schools and help them solve problems.” But, she claims, “they have now been taken over by the idea of competition, they have become part of the movement to turn education into a consumer product rather than a social and public responsibility.”

In working with charter schools in Ohio, and now Idaho, I have met dozens of educators over the years who started their careers as teachers in district schools or as administrators in district offices. These educators turned to the charter school model only after coming to the realization that if they wanted to better serve their kids they needed the freedom and flexibility that comes with a charter school. They simply couldn’t do what their students needed because their hands were tied by rule-bound school districts or special interests that were more concerned with protecting turf, money and influence than shaking things up. These charter reformers, in fact, are exactly the sorts of educators that early charter advocates like the legendary American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker, Minnesota’s charter school patron Joe Nathan, and Diane Ravitch herself wanted opening and running schools when the charter idea was being debated in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There are many in the charter school community that have tried to make change happen in collaboration with their districts or as part of a larger district reform effort. For example, in Dayton Ohio, the charter school concept was embraced way back in 1997 by then district superintendent James Williams. Williams proposed conversion of the district's five most troubled schools into charters as a way to try and turn them around. His charter plan was supported by a significant cross section of the Dayton community, including the presidents of the University of Dayton, the major local utility company, Key Bank’s Dayton district, and Sinclair Community College, as well as the provost of Wright State University.

Despite the community buy-in the plan was ultimately scuttled by teacher union opposition. Williams told me during an interview for a book I was co-authoring on Ohio’s school reform efforts in 2008 that “at the end of the day, the union vetoed it. It was the biggest disappointment in my career.” The demise of the Williams’ plan led to an explosion of charter growth in Dayton that over 15-years provided mixed results academically, and that for much of the time made discussion of education and education reform toxic in a city that badly needed better schools for its students.

This is history Ravitch knows because for much of this time she was on the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation board, and was receiving updates three times a year from me and my Fordham colleagues on happenings in Dayton. But, such history was not unique to Ohio. In Idaho, where I am now working as president of the Idaho Charter School Network, I am meeting charter school leaders across the Gem State. They too share painful stories of trying to work within their traditional school districts to create new programs and opportunities for students. They too have faced rejection and frustration. Rather than give up, however, these educators decided to use their state charter law to open schools of their own. A growing portion of these schools are now Idaho’s top performing public schools.

The North Idaho STEM Academy is a great example. This highly rated school was started by a husband and wife team. She is a nationally board certified teacher and he a long-time school administrator. The school is winning acclaim across Idaho and the nation. During my recent visit I not only saw children engaged in state of the art science projects but met a retired NASA astronaut who worked with the students as a volunteer. The school operates in a collection of portable classrooms (literally in the shadow of the district high school), but despite the facility challenges the school has a long wait list.

North Idaho STEM Academy, like many other charters across the country, have allowed frustrated educators the opportunity to provide a choice that local districts couldn’t or wouldn’t. These schools do not fit into Ravitch’s narrative of “a corporate takeover” of American education or a “Reign of Error,” but they are an important piece of the American experience with charters and should be part of any honest telling of that history.