The famous international scholar and the N.J. Education Commissioner

On Tuesday morning, NJ Spotlight published an editorial by Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s on charter schools. That afternoon, the renowned education historian, Dr. Diane Ravitch, posted an angry rebuttal (currently going viral).

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

On Tuesday morning, NJ Spotlight published an editorial by Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s on charter schools. That afternoon, the renowned education historian, Dr. Diane Ravitch, posted an angry rebuttal (currently going viral). Why all the fuss? What could incite a famous international scholar to respond to a simple and factual description of a tiny subset of New Jersey’s public school system?

Let’s unpack this a bit.

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Comm. Cerf tells us that he wants to “go beyond the frequent misrepresentations to have an honest conversation about what charter schools are and why they are important to New Jersey.” While not part of the local district, they “are public schools, with public school students and public school teachers, funded with public dollars. Like district-run public schools, they are open to all students and, unlike many magnet and vocational schools, they are legally prohibited from using admissions criteria.”

Pretty mild stuff, all covered in statute, and particularly timely because the DOE just approved nine new public charters. Yet Dr. Ravitch responds angrily, declaiming that charter schools are run by “privatizers and profiteers” and cheering New Jersey residents who are “beginning to revolt against for-profit charters, especially for-profit online charters, which Cerf is promoting…Citizens of the state have good reason to oppose the Christie administration’s efforts to turn more taxpayer dollars over to private entrepreneurs.”

In fact, all of NJ’s charter school operators are non-profits, as mandated by state law. So what’s getting Ravitch so riled up?

Most likely it’s Cerf’s references to Albert Shanker.

First, a little context. Shanker’s eminence may have faded for some of you too young to remember the scene in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper,” where the cryogenically-frozen hero awakes in 2173 and another character explains how the northeastern part of the U.S. was obliterated: “A man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” For teachers in New York City (I had two for parents) Shanker was practically a deity, the educator’s saint. Our neighbors lit candles for Mother Mary; we davened to Albert.

I’m being presumptuous here, but most likely so did Diane Ravitch. And more: she was his colleague.

Shanker was the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a legendary and fiery speaker and scholar who reinvented teacher unions and proposed America’s first charter schools. (AFT’s New York branch, UFT, runs two in NYC.) Indeed, some regard Shanker as the father of education reform, partly because of his brave reaction to the publication of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform.” While the NEA assured its members that the report’s bleak conclusions were a passing fad, Shanker was the only educator to endorse the report’s findings that the American school system was “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

He’s also become a sort of prophet for educators of all persuasions, which must be pretty rankling for someone who knew him. Ed reformers love him, sprinkling his provocative quotes like salt on chips. And who can resist? Here’s Shanker on the need for higher teaching standards: “a lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent.” On failing schools: “We’ve got a lemon factory and we’re turning out 80-85% lemons.”

On the education establishment’s resistance to change: It is time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy. It’s a bureaucratic system where everybody’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s not a surprise when a school system doesn’t improve. It more resembles a Communist economy than our own market economy.

Here’s a fact.

If Albert Shanker were alive today, he’d still be an education reformer and would support NJ’s efforts to expand school choice for poor urban students. Here’s another fact: he wouldn’t have given this answer to a parent’s query, which appears in the comment section of Dr. Ravitch’s blog.

Parent: “Diane, what would you say to the poor urban minority parent who, due to her life situation, is forced to send her child to the chronically under-performing neighborhood public school? Would you still be in favor of leaving this parent with no options? There are many such urban parents who desperately want something better for their children. Where would your recommendations leave them?”

Ravitch: “My recommendations would send them to a good, local school, not a corporate school looking to exploit them for profit.”

No, Shanker would have done better than that.

The original version of this blog referred to Albert Shanker as the founder of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker was not the founder but was elected in 1974 as the president. 


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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