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Ravitch and phony reform

Education historian Diane Ravitch's progression from right-leaning think tanks to her current status as the voice of the opposition in the nation's phony ed reform movement is well known; in a meeting with The Journal Gazette's editorial board this morning, she pointed out that views formerly associated with the right are now the mainstream.

Those include the views of Checker Finn, Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and more. The free-market, anti-union course they champion is increasingly the driving force in public education, particularly in Indiana.

Ravitch, who came to realize that what works in business doesn't work when it comes to education, notes that her critics condemn her as a defender of the status quo. But the status quo is now the unproven approaches championed by Wall Street's hedge-fund managers and billionaire "philanthropists" whose education reform views just happen to fall perfectly in line with efforts to crush organized labor, including teacher unions.

The key to improving schools isn't found in vouchers, charter schools, teacher evaluations, merit pay and all of the other current approaches, according to Ravitch. Schools must end the punitive approach to education. They must identify their best performers and allow them to share what they know with other educators. It's making the arts a key piece of the curriculum and ensuring that students learn how to think critically and write well. It's ensuring health care for all children – including prenatal care – and quality early childhood education.

Ravitch's expertise in taking on phony ed reform is connecting the dots between the for-profit forces benefiting from the privatization of public education and the politicians whose campaigns coffers they are filling. The most disturbing message she shares is that the politicians are on both sides of the aisle – from Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education to Barack Obama and Democrats for Education Reform.

Ravitch offers a couple of rays of hope. The first is pushback from parents who are beginning to see that education reform has nothing to do with improving their schools. It was evident most recently in Florida, where parents turned back the disingenuous "parent trigger" to take over public schools.

The second is in state legislatures, where lawmakers are beginning to be held accountable for their votes against public schools and teachers. There were some signs of that in the Indiana General Assembly in its just-ended session. Overall, the Indiana Department of Education had little success in expanding its policies, including its own parent trigger bill. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are beginning to question the direction state Superintendent Tony Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels are moving. It's a welcome change.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at