Ravitch tangles with school reformers on Butler panel

A lively, and sometimes pointed, debate about how best to improve schools followed the premiere of a documentary developed by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation tonight at Butler University.

Headlining the five-person panel was Diane Ravitch, the historian and one-time school reform advocate turned national spokesman against testing, school choice, test-based teacher evaluation and other proposals she says aim to privatize public schools.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” Ravitch said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and education and which have the least. Then we punish the children of the families that have the least.”

But advocates for reform, including The Mind Trust CEO David Harris and Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation, argued that charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and other strategies can help improve education in Indiana.

“To just assert that charters are bad doesn’t allow us to focus on policy issues,” Harris said. “I understand the frustration that caused people to want to make this movie. We in the reform community need to do a better job of having this conversation.”

The film interviewed a host of teachers and experts who criticized a series of reform the state has undertaken in the last several years. It made the case that money was being drained from public schools and that experiments like vouchers and charter schools were not working or unfair.

“Standardized tests are the new bully in school,” the narrator says early in the film, setting its tone. “Inspiration cowers in the corner.”

The 2,100 seat Clowes Memorial Hall on Butler’s campus was mostly full with an audience of educators and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A huge cheer went up when the movie showed former Indiana state Superintendent Tony Bennett resigning from the equivalent post in Florida after charges surfaced from his Indiana emails that he and his staff raised a charter school’s grade.

The panel discussion was polite but neither side was able to say much to persuade the other.

Ravitch and panelist Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne schools, mostly argued for placing more trust in teachers and offering more support for traditional public schools. Harris and Enlow advocated for using a variety of approaches to improving education, including charter schools and vouchers, especially for benefit of poor children.

“There is no question poverty creates enormous challenges,” Harris said. “We also know, thank God, that kids from any background and circumstances, if given the opportunity to go to a great school, can excel as well as any other group of kids. There are schools out there doing that.”

Robinson, noting arguments in the film that Indiana public schools have seen tuition support decline since 1998 when adjusted for inflation, cited one of her best performing schools. A major factor in its success, she said, was tremendous community support to supplement the work of teachers.

“There are sometimes more adults than children in that school,” she said. “We are seeking community partners. Let’s not fool ourselves. Resources also matter.”

The most heated exchange came after Ravitch argued that public schools should be supported and paid for as a public obligation, like police, fire protection, parks and beaches, not turned into a market for companies to profit from.

Enlow responded that government often pays for its obligations while still allowing those who benefit to make choices. Food stamp recipients or Medicare patients, he said, can spend their government benefits at any grocery store or hospital, even private hospitals run by churches.

That brought a flash of indignation from Robinson.

“It’s insulting to equate public education with food stamps,” she said, promoting a roar of approval from the audience.

At the end, moderator Scott Sander of WISH-TV asked each panelist, what change in education should everyone get behind?

“Allow all testing to be done by teachers and eliminate all standardized testing,” Ravitch said.

Enlow said everyone should support allowing kids to go to a quality school of any kind. Robinson advocated for deciding what education costs and funding that amount. Harris wanted to move decisions out of the central office and to individual schools.

“Let’s step back and ask what’s truly effective in any school type,” said the fifth panelist, Greg Lineweaver, an English teacher at North Central High School. “Remove the politics.”