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I have two new heroes this week: Diane Ravitch and Dennis Kucinich don?t have a whole lot in common, but both of them exhibited the rare ability to hang onto their principles and change their minds at the same time. We could use more leaders like them.
Ravitch has just published a new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. As a former assistant secretary of education who served in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, she?s in a position to know. Once a proponent of charter schools and No Child Left Behind, she has turned against both and is a critic of the Obama administration?s attempts to modify NCLB as still antithetical to equal opportunity.
In an op-ed piece published March 9 in the Wall Street Journal, Ravitch notes that ?The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools.?
She goes on: ?They do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades. They also fail to recognize that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty?not bad teachers.? She?s a big supporter of experienced, professionally organized educators, pointing out that Massachusetts, which has the nation?s best public schools, has an active teachers? union, the bete noir of so-called reformers.
What a great departure from the prevailing insistence that the problems with schools in neighborhoods of poverty are caused by poor teachers and a lack of high expectations, and that closing a school provides parents with a glorious opportunity to choose a better one! Ravich points out that our charter schools, which the Obama Administration wants to expand, enroll only three percent of our children, but they receive disproportionate attention. In a study funded by pro-choice forces of 5,000 charter schools, only 17 percent outperformed public schools in the same neighborhood, and 37 percent were significantly worse.
I?m hoping that Ravitch?s book compels the Obama Administration and educators everywhere to rethink what education should do for our children, especially the poorest ones, and to turn in a more promising direction. Although it?s not necessarily on Ravitch?s agenda, our legislators should question the outdated model that ties school funding to property taxes, if they want to improve schools in poor neighborhoods.
And we must quit blaming schools for problems like poverty that are part of our larger society.
Speaking of poor neighborhoods, Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich (one of seven kids) lived in 21 different places, some of them automobiles, by the time he was 17. Twice a candidate for president in the Democratic party, Kucinich has been a scrappy fighter for a single-payer health care system or, as he calls it, Medicare for all.
Cleveland has been hard hit by all kinds of economic problems (For three years, it was the nation?s poorest city; now it ranks fourth), and Kucinich has aligned himself with the working class. He did not vote for the House bill when it passed in November, and until Wednesday, he was firmly against the revised bill, saying it was built on the sand of the insurance industry.
But something happened when Kucinich had a talk with President Obama. It was clear that Kucinich was no more enthusiastic about the bill than he was before they spoke, but he declared he would switch his vote for a different reason: he believes the legitimacy of Obama?s presidency is on the line.
Like Obama, Kucinich knows the sting of baseless criticism. As mayor of Cleveland from 1977 to 1979, he fought a tough battle with corporate interests to hold on to the city?s electric utility company. His Wikipedia biography says the Cleveland mafia put out a hit on him. Although the Cleveland Trust Company refused to roll over the city?s debt, he fought off a recall only to lose his bid for reelection. Vindication came slowly. Not until 1998 did the city council thank him for the $195 million his decision had saved the city between 1985 and 1995.
The long view must come easier now for the congressman.
?I am quite aware of the historic fight that has lasted the better part of the last century to bring America in line with other modern democracies in providing single payer health care,? Kucinich said. ?I have seen the political pressure and the financial pressure being asserted to prevent a minimal recognition of this right, even within the context of a system dominated by private insurance companies.I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it, but the bill as it is.?
Somehow, the President had convinced him.
There are Americans who still think they can remain untouched by the deterioration of our education and health care systems. Most of them, I suspect, have been glued to Fox News and convinced themselves that corporate America will take care of our schools and hospitals. They are mistaken, of course. But too often people deep within our established professions have been inarticulate about the problems or simply nipped away at the edges.
Not Ravitch and Kucinich. They deserve our attention and our gratitude.