By Luis Bravo
Diane Silvers Ravitch (born July 1, 1938) is a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Previously, she was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.
Ravitch was born into a Jewish family in 1938 in Houston, Texas, where she went to public schools from kindergarten through high school graduation. She is one of eight children. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. She married Richard Ravitch (who later served as Lieutenant Governor of New York) in 1960 and they divorced in 1986. They have two sons; a third son died of leukemia at the age of 2.
Ravitch lives in Southold, New York. Her longtime companion is Mary Butz, a retired New York City public school principal who also administered a progressive principal training program.
Ravitch began her career as an editorial assistant at the New Leader magazine, a socialist journal founded and supported by Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas.
In 1975, she became a historian of education with a Ph. D. from Columbia University. At that time she worked closely with Teachers College president Lawrence A. Cremin, who was her mentor.
She was appointed to public office by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander from 1991 to 1993 and his successor Richard Riley appointed her to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the National Assessment of Educational Progress; she was a member of NAGB from 1997 to 2004. From 1995 to 2005 she held the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution.
She participated in a “blog debate” called “Bridging Differences” with Steinhardt School colleague Deborah Meier on the website of Education Week from February 26, 2007 until September 2012. She now has her own blog, Diane Ravitch’s Blog.
In 2013, she joined forces with a writer and former teacher, Anthony Cody, to set up The Network for Public Education which is a foundation dedicated to fighting against educational corporate reforms. She is currently serving on the board of directors as the President of NPE.
In her blog, “Massachusetts: How to kill a Successful School” she describes Pelham, Massachusetts, as a small town in the western part of the state. It contains about 1,300 residents. It has only one school, an elementary school that enrolls about 130 children.
The Pelham school is part of the Amherst district; when children leave elementary school, they move on to the Amherst–Pelham Regional Schools for junior and senior high. Three school committees, three budgets, one K-12 school system.
The Pelham elementary school is one of the highest-performing schools in the state. It is beloved by its community. But the school may be forced to close in the next few years because of four students enrolled in a nearby charter school.
After the budgets were complete, the state education department informed the school committee in Pelham that it owed the local charter school $67,000. The state was supposed to let the district know long before the budget was completed but failed to do so. Now, this excellent public school is scrambling to figure out how to find $67,000. That represents 4% of its budget. It has only one teacher per grade. Which teacher will lose his or her job? Which grade will go unstaffed?
When charters open in Massachusetts, the state pays for the first year. After that, the cost of each student is paid by the “sending” district, whose budget must be reduced by that amount. In the case of a small district like Pelham, the consequences may be devastating. The Amherst–Pelham Regional district currently pays the charter $2.24 million each year.
The local charter school is the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley. It draws nearly 500 students from local schools. This past year, it sought to double its enrollment. The outcry from local communities was so intense that the charter–friendly state board of education, to everyone’s surprise, rejected the charter expansion.
The charter school is not serving “poor kids from failing schools,” as the saying goes. It under–enrolls children with disabilities and children from low–income families. The charter school reports that 3.2% of its students have disabilities, compared to 19.2% in the Amherst-Pelham Regional district. Families with children who have IEPs have pulled their children out of the charter school, because of its failure to meet their needs; according to parents, the school leader’s response is “let them go.”
The Pelham school cannot survive the painful cut the state is demanding. The school was recently renovated, in part with state funds. If the school closes, the community would have to repay the state for its share of the renovation cost.
The Amherst–Pelham Superintendent Michael Morris and the Pelham school committee are writing a response to the state.
If you ever wondered about the harm that charter schools inflict on local communities, think of the Pelham school. It is an excellent school. It may be forced to close to prop up a charter school that draws away a small number of students while avoiding the region’s neediest students.
How can anyone justify this deliberate undermining of successful public schools? This is a textbook demons-tration of the harm done by charter schools to public schools and communities.