There is evil in the world. In fact, there are too many examples, from Jerry Sandusky and Ariel Castro in the United States to Bashar al-Assad gassing civilians in Syria to Islamic terrorists killing shoppers in a Nairobi, Kenya, mall. You could make a list of all the evil in the world and run out of ideas before you would ever think of writing down the name of Diane Ravitch, a grandmother who has dedicated her life to protecting public schools, but don’t tell that to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.
On Sept. 19, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted out a link to a good review of Ravitch’s latest book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Although Weingarten’s tweet was not directed at him, Rep. Polis responded, and he chose his words poorly.
“@rweingarten don’t know if I can bring myself to read another book from that evil woman who is doing such harm to public education,” tweeted Polis. He later deleted that, but when challenged by Weingarten, he didn’t back down.
“Can’t think of anybody else who has caused more harm to public schools, except maybe Koch brothers,” he tweeted. “(She’s) actually a very sweet woman, i’ve met her, but her theories are causing great harm to public schools.” (The myriad errors in that tweet are in his original.)
Who is this “very sweet” but “evil woman” who so riles Polis, the seventh-richest member of Congress? Ravitch had senior positions in the Department of Education for both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Initially, she was a big cheerleader for No Child Left Behind until she noticed it didn’t work. The tests didn’t make our kids smarter, and their parents overwhelmingly preferred public schools, even badly rated ones, over privately-owned charter schools.
That’s the pea disturbing the slumber of Polis, a member of Colorado’s State Board of Education before he got elected to Congress, where he sits on the Education Committee. He made one fortune with online greeting cards and then another fortune with ProFlowers, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But Polis believes that his success in re-inventing greeting cards and flower delivery qualifies him to re-invent public education. His foundation funds the New America School, a privately-owned charter school in Denver rated among the worst in the state that graduates students well below the state average.
Not content to keep all that success to himself, Polis sponsored the All Students Achieving through Reform (All-STAR) Act to make, he said, “the very best educational practices at America’s leading charter schools available to more students. It’s as simple as finding what does and doesn’t work, funding the best schools, and giving every student the best possible education,” which sounds nice until you realize he’s talking about charter schools like his.
Polis’ antipathy towards Ravitch is purely ideological. She’s the heretic who says Earth revolves around the sun. In “Reign of Error,” Ravitch writes that public schools are doing a pretty good job but would do better if we gave pre-natal education to poor women, funded universal pre-kindergarten and created opportunities for summer learning to prevent regression. But Ravitch also writes that charter schools aren’t magic and cites reams of evidence to back this up. To Polis, this is blasphemy.
“Jared Polis is outstanding on environmental issues and probably other issues as well. But for reasons I don’t understand, he has a visceral, emotional contempt for public schools,” responded Ravitch.
The reason is that Polis is an entrepreneur besotted with the buzzwords that made him rich. “Innovation” will not, in and of itself, fix public schools, and absent evidence that charter schools are better than public schools, faith that they will is as dangerous as irrational exuberance on Wall Street.
Put down the iPhone and go home, congressman.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.