Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools: A Review

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Diane Ravitch—author of landmark works such as The Great School Wars (2000) and The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010)—is a veteran in the public school debate. In her latest book, Reign of Error (2013), she reenters the ring ready for a fight. Just read the subtitle: “the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” You can see that she’s out for blood. The subject of education policy can stymie timid commentators, but Ravitch spelunks into this snake hole with the swagger of a honey badger. This book picks up where Great American School System left off, telling her story as conservative reformer turned educational progressive. Reign of Error, however, is less about her personal story and more about advocating for public schools. Public schools are her passion, and privatization her enemy. In her words:

The schools are in crisis because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education. These attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools… I believe that privatizing our public schools is a risky and dangerous project. I believe it will hurt children, shatter communities, and damage our society. (p. xi–xii)

To make her case, she begins with four chapters explaining how “corporate reform” (school choice/privatization) is stealing resources from public schools by touting the “myth” that public schools are failing (3–43). The next seven chapters buffet that narrative with purported facts about public schools such as the “facts about the achievement gap,” “about international test scores,” and so on (44–123). The next nine chapters respond to different answers touted by corporate reformers including Teach for America, vouchers, and online learning (114–223). Each of these, she argues, has been a disappointment, offering nothing better than public schooling. The final section, spanning chapters 21–33, lays out her prescription for improving public schools including public preschool, anti-poverty programs, smaller classes, locally run school boards, low-stakes testing, and other initiatives consistent with antiprivatization (224–326).

Two Lenses of Critique

To understand this text, you’re best served by reading through two distinct lenses: academic debate and political rhetoric. In one sense, this book is a substantial, well-footnoted, textbook-length argument against school choice. It carries the authority and force of a veteran education expert in Diane Ravitch. In this regard, this text is an impressive work. Unfortunately, the impressive array of evidence and argumentation is couched within a political screed.

“Make no mistake,” warns Sol Stern of City-Journal, “this is a political tract,” and Ravitch’s writing “has all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster.” (para. 26) Despite Ravitch’s academic laurels, this book veers from the crisp and careful work of a polished academic and descends into a one-sided rant. The framing is an “us-versus-them” battleground, where she describes her side with all the zeal of a Crusader warring against enemy hoards.

For example, Ravitch describes her perceived opponents with insulting labels such as “Corporate reformers,” “profiteers,” “frauds,” guilty of “exploitation” (4). She claims they have an “implacable hostility toward the public sector,” and says “the roots of this so-called reform movement [i.e., school choice/privatization] may be traced to a radical ideology with a fundamental distrust of public education and hostility to the public sector in general.” (19) She accuses conservatives, broadly, of wanting to “destroy,” “dismantle,” and “replace” public education (4, 21). She goes so far as to claim that reformers dismiss the influence of poverty on education and that reformers think education alone can cure poverty (224–5). This kind of exaggerated and polarizing language is laced throughout the book. Ravitch gives the impression she is more interested in rhetorical combat than in responsible discussion.

Through an academic lens, one can detect a clearly stated argument backed by strong credentials and filtered through meaningful evidence. Unfortunately, taken through a political lens, the text is harder to take at face value. This political lens is no less important to understanding Ravitch’s case. And just to be clear, the problem isn’t simply that the author is biased. Everyone is biased. But her bias seems pervasive and deliberate to the point of undermining her credibility. So thorough and even malicious is her bias that it overrides an otherwise great conversation about public education. This text errs the same way that political speeches tend to err, by oversimplifying complicated problems, debasing opposing views, demonizing political opponents, and promising impossible solutions. Nevertheless, her supporters and her detractors alike should employ both lenses so they don’t miss the depth of her case.

Argumentative Style

Ravitch’s style of writing is argumentative with a sprinkle of indignation. She makes no effort to hide her agenda. She speaks in sweeping generalities about “corporate reformers” (as if all school choice advocates are corporate lackeys). And she claims school choice advocates want to shut down all public schools (32–43). This misleading claim defies the careful language we should expect from a scholar of her caliber.

Her authorial voice is less a literary style and more a fighting style, with lots of attack language, polarization, and not much caution or balance. In that regard, it’s helpful to remember that this book is not aimed at information or description but advocacy. Ravitch tries to energize the reader in defense of public schools. In that light, her overt bias is less offensive, even if it does cast her as an ideological lobbyist.

Trouble at the Top: Problems with Federal Education Policies

Stylistic critique aside, the strength of this text is in the breadth and depth of evidence she offers. She makes comparisons between traditional public schools and charter schools, citing expert opinions, covering an impressive sweep of educational policies and practices, and even includes a twenty-five-page appendix with nothing but charts and graphs about public school performance (327–51). Generally speaking, she makes a persuasive case against the federal education policies under Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race to the Top).

Both plans resort to high-stakes testing and punish teachers and schools for circumstances beyond their control such as poverty, learning disabilities, and language barriers. Those models pressure schools to “teach to the test,” and tend to suppress subject areas left untested. Furthermore, she identifies a troubling trend of crony capitalism, illegal activity, and a spate of opportunistic indiscretions that have found their way into the for-profit charter school system. High stakes testing, federal overreach, and cronyism all merit great disdain on both sides of the political aisle.

Her argument has great force when she cites actual missteps and errors in the school choice movement (whose advocates she consistently refers to as “corporate reformers”). For example, she notes an early advocate for charter schools apostatized, rejecting the competition-model that followed the rise of charter schools (158). That’s a telling admission. She also highlights charter school scandals where schools dabbled with special interests, nepotism, and financial abuse, sometimes generating lawsuits and arrests (159–79). These matters are consequential. However, Ravitch assumes that these ugly instances are not anomalies but a definitive reflection of the school choice movement. Ravitch might have strengthened her case by demonstrating that these examples typify the movement rather than resting on assumption. Meanwhile, it’s clear Ravitch views privatization, reform, and charter schools as being defined by corporate profits rather than liberty and choice.

Equality, Diversity, but not Liberty

Matters of equality and diversity undergird many of Ravitch’s assertions. For example, when she recommends solutions, she suggests federal anti-poverty and desegregation policies (290–9). In her opinion, poverty is a perennial problem, segregation is a growing problem, and both merit sweeping policies with aggressive enforcement. Unfortunately, she does not explore any particular causes for segregation and has only a facile treatment of poverty.

With segregation, her treatment proves superficial, lacking serious causal analysis. The reader is left to wonder how she thinks federal or state policies can improve on what’s already in place (1964 Civil Rights Acts, Title IX, etc.). Ravitch does not specify how her desegregation aims would work. Short of this specification, her advice carries little practical value. Nevertheless, her attention to the issues of racism and poverty are important baselines for serious conversation on public education. One wishes her discussion here would have carried more actionable recommendations.

Liberty is not in view

Her emphasis on equality and diversity could be strengthened with a comparable emphasis on liberty. Unfortunately, she does not seem to place a high value on expanding educational options. For example, she is harsh toward online education (180–97), computer-based schooling (156–79), private and religious schools (321), and homeschooling (180–97), though she is charitable enough to acknowledge:

Ours is a diverse nation that respects the choices that people make about their children’s education. We respect the right of parents to send their children to private and religious schools. We respect the right of families to homeschool their children. (321)

Yet this admission is mere concession. Ravitch later writes, “More than a century ago, our nation decided to separate church and state, to restrict the allocation of public funds to public schools, and to keep religious doctrine out of public school classrooms.” (321) She wisely recognizes the threat of unduly mixing church and state interests. However, she reflects a compartmentalist interpretation of the freedom of religion, one that does not leave much room for those students and families who believe their religious interests aren’t served by public schools.

Ravitch’s argument is simply incomplete if she cannot reassure her audience that robust freedom of religion is fortified within the public school system. She could, at least, give a respectful nod to the other side of the aisle. But her rhetoric has virtually eliminated open discussion on the role of religious freedom in public school, consequently marginalizing an issue of central importance to school choice advocates.

Not a Fan of Online Learning

Ravitch is also generally negative regarding online education (180–97). She admits its value for students in exceptional cases such as pregnancy, debilitating sickness, or for those engaged in full-time training for sports, acting, etc. (196) In those cases, online learning is the best available option short of dropping out of school. However, she reflects no vision for the expanding landscape of internet technology.

Conventional classroom learners may be hampered by a quick shift to online classes, but today’s students face the opposite problem. Many students do most of their learning online and outside the classroom through search engines, news sites, online documentaries, streaming how-to videos, and so on.

Effectively, our educational glasses are tinted to fit the glare of screen-based technology. Of course, most every student can benefit from classroom and online learning, and these two avenues of learning can fit together, offering their own respective strengths and weaknesses. But Ravitch argues that online learning is just a necessary evil or a last-ditch option. She is mistaken in this point and would do well to reconsider the role of online learning today.

Capitalism vs. Crony Capitalism

The author’s chief objection to all forms of privatization seems to be its detraction from public schools. She believes public schools are the socio-cultural center of communities. In her view, depleting resources for public schools is akin to defacing a public monument or egging city hall. In her view, “school choice” is code-language for undercutting public school funding. Any competition within this zero-sum game means public schools directly suffer (316–17). These concerns have some validity. Vouchers route funding away from traditional public schools. Her economic argument, however, is hampered by a critical ambiguity.

Ravitch fails to distinguish between capitalism and crony capitalism (“cronyism”). Ravitch’s text treats the two synonymously, risking a sweeping generalization and faulting the innocent for the sins of the guilty. While Ravitch does a great job decrying cronyism, until she clarifies how she thinks capitalism and cronyism relate, her evidence does not point uniquely to her conclusion. It could, in fact, even strengthen the counter-argument to her text, that the cure for cronyism might not be in rejecting butin correcting capitalism in the education market.

Shifting the Goalposts: Utopia or Realistic Critique

Another disparity lurks in her methods of comparison. Throughout Reign of Error, Ravitch uses sweeping, exaggerated language when describing opposing views (i.e., school reformers) then critiques those views according to utopian standards (180, 206, 209, 213, 224–5). In this way, she makes privatization look like a failure. If the goal is perfect education in one generation, then the school choice movement has failed royally.

This technique might seem like a stylistic choice, like over-bright contrast on the TV screen, which casts everything in the same exaggerated colors. However, she uses a different standard when evaluating public schools. Instead of comparing them to utopia, she compares them to reality. Real-world adversity explains away the apparent “failures” in public schools in terms of poor funding, disadvantaged students, and other factors that are not the fault of the school (1–114, 313–26) By shifting her standards this way, she inflates her case, judging public schools with more grace than she’s willing to show to private schools and charters.

Does Ravitch make her case?

The question remains: Does she make a good case against privatization? Yes and no. She doesn’t demonstrate her case against privatization. This conclusion is bigger than her evidence can support. She does, however, show that many traditional public schools are doing better than we may realize, and many charter schools are doing worse than we thought. She also shows some built-in problems with high-stakes testing, as it fosters “teach-to-the-test” mentality, suppressing subjects left untested, and serving as imprecise measuring tools. On a personal level, I also found her skepticism towards the Department of Education refreshing.

However, her evidence doesn’t justify her thesis. It is not enough to show that many charter schools fail. She would need to show that charter schools invariably fail to improve the overall educational landscape or, at least, she needs to show that the concept of charter schooling is misconceived. And even then, Ravitch will not have dethroned the notion of school choice unless she seriously engages with the idea of liberty, instead of just equality, diversity, and poverty. Liberty is a high value for advocates of school choice, especially on issues of worldview, ethics, culture, and religion. Parents are not always convinced that the local public educator is reinforcing the values they want for their children.

Ravitch would have a smashing success here if she had aimed for a modest thesis such as “many charter schools need revision,” or “traditional public schools deserve more credit than they’re getting.” But since she aims to discredit the foundations of the entire privatization effort, her argument falls short.

Considering these critiques together, Ravitch is working against herself. Her intriguing argument would stand sufficiently on its own. But she hurts her credibility by using double standards, by cramming an “us-versus-them” wedge into the argument, and by chronically slandering her perceived opponents. Furthermore, she leaves gaping holes in her argument by dismissing the issue of liberty, and by providing an argument which, while interesting, is porous and unreliable at its core.

Is this book worth reading?

If Ravitch is right, the privatization movement is not about school choice. It’s not about liberating parents to choose better schools for their children, nor does it let them exercise a democratic voice in deciding who teaches and what is taught to their kids. If she’s right, then the privatization movement is capitalism gone wild, nothing more than profiteering schemes that bilk public schools of precious funding only to line the pockets of money-grubbing fat cats gaming the system. She may or may not be right. Either way, this book is one of the most formidable arguments against the privatization movement. The flaws in her argument make her central thesis vulnerable to question, but the overall case merits consideration from all sides of the school choice debate. Whatever your political affiliation, this book is well worth reading.

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