a serious scholar for our voucher debate – Tennessee Lookout

It’s alarming watching our state stumble into an ill-advised scheme for school vouchers, the spectacle made all the worse by our legislators ignoring all the credible analyses and studies showing the systems do not really have educational value — and, in fact, overall do substantial harm at great cost.

The sad display is made even worse as we see Education Commissioner Lizette Reynolds stumble through the details of education policy and try to backfill the credentials required for the job. Many of our legislators, of course, are satisfied to quote right-wing groups designed to promote voucher schemes. Into this mess of sloppy sourcing, let me introduce a serious person with top-notch credentials, and a lot of informed understanding of education policies.

Diane Ravitch was a research professor at New York University from 1995 until 2020.  Before that, she was Assistant Secretary of Education for Research in George H.W. Bush’s administration, serving under Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, a Tennessean,  from 1991 to 1993. I first encountered her work in her thorough documentation that the G. I. Bill was one of the most successful pieces of legislation ever conceived, playing a major role in the post-World War II growth of the middle class and opening doors for millions of Americans.

Diane Ravitch, who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, found that the policy’s inherent in the latter Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, didn’t work.

Ravitch’s early career featured positions that would be comfortable to most political conservatives, but she was intellectually honest. She found herself increasingly persuaded that some of the things she championed, such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, created policies — including high stakes testing, punitive actions to fire teachers and closing schools — that did not work. She concluded charter school and voucher movements were being pushed by right-wing think tanks and billionaires to destroy public education and teacher unions.

Her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, became a bestseller; it details her shift away from conservative policies and her embrace of our societal commitment to public schools.  Her follow-up books were 2014’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools and Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, 2020. Our state legislators would do well to read them, and for recent and bite-sized material, I recommend Ravitch’s blog (dianeravitch.net). 

The blog contains daily posts, sometimes multiple posts per day, on the efforts to weaken public education through voucher schemes and other machinations. It reports on the foibles of shaky new private school operators, the misrepresentations in state legislatures, and research showing how vouchers primarily benefit the families of those already using private schools.  It also has a Blog Topics index for quick research on related topics.

Our state legislature is following a well-worn path — use euphemisms like school choice and educational savings accounts, be coy about where the money will come from (stripped from public schools), deride public schools as “government schools,” and ignore research showing voucher failures.

It seems likely our legislators will use some of the state surplus for the first, limited year of vouchers — and then start stripping the money from the public school budget as the program goes statewide.  We could use the reasoned voice Ravitch and other experts willing to believe the evidence against vouchers.  The odds are not good we will get that from our legislature.

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