Hari Sevugan, a Rhee spokesman who used to work for the Democratic National Committee, says, “Ms. Ravitch may be satisfied that our students are placing at the bottom or middle of the pack in international assessments, but we aren’t. In order to increase our competitiveness with rising powers in China and India, we can no longer accept the status quo—as Ms. Ravitch is doing.”
Sevugan also points out that StudentsFirst, Rhee’s advocacy organization, has worked in Michigan, Nevada, and Maine to pass school reform laws that attracted bipartisan support. “I’m a proud Democrat, but I know that reform cannot be achieved by one party alone,” Sevugan says.
In May, Ravitch picked a high-profile fight with another reform-minded former D.C. education official, Deborah Gist, now Rhode Island’s education commissioner. In an Education Week blog post, Ravitch claimed that at a meeting that also included Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state teachers’ union leaders, Gist “dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time... In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.”
In response, Chafee said Gist had “comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times.” A documentary filmmaker who’d been at the meeting then offered to release footage if all parties agreed; Ravitch said she wanted to see it first. On May 24, she took to her blog to apologize: “I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry. Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse.”
The apology for meanness did not address the charge that she had misrepresented Gist’s behavior. The footage has not been released.
In a separate contretemps, an anonymous Twitter feed called “OldDianeRavitch,” opened in April, featuring a steady stream of hyperlinked free-market school reform arguments Ravitch once made, but now disclaims, such as: “NYC schools chancellor should have the power to close schools that consistently fail or engage in corrupt practices” (from a 1995 Times op-ed) and, “Without testing, there is no consistent way to measure success or failure” (spoken at a 2001 panel discussion at City College).
The account was clearly a parody. But Ravitch pushed Twitter to shut it down as a violation of its anti-impersonation policy. The feed soon relaunched with the handle “NOTDianeRavitch.” In an email, its author sneered that “the old Diane Ravitch cherry-picked the evidence that supported her policy views at the time, and the new Diane Ravitch does the same, just for a different set of views.” Of course, the parodist insisted on sniping from behind the veil of anonymity: In an email interview, the writer would only say that he or she holds a Ph.D in one of the social sciences and was doing the Twitter mockery anonymously because, “I thought that I might be pigeonholed” politically for tweaking someone now considered a liberal icon.
Several of Ravitch’s former allies declined to be interviewed for this story. Off the record, some questioned whether there’s something strange or even disturbing about the way she seems to go out looking for a fight, then responds in a hurt way when she herself is attacked. That view is most bluntly articulated by Jay Greene, a conservative University of Arkansas professor who blogs on school reform. “She is behaving like a classic bully,” Greene wrote about Ravitch’s behavior toward Gist. “She hurls insults and allegations against others on a continual basis, but as soon as she is challenged she tries to shut-down the opposition, punish her critics, and deplores the meanness of public discourse.” It’s the same case many of Rhee’s critics made.
Asked for her take on these recent tempests, Ravitch emailed, “Why are conservatives so afraid of me? Why invest so much energy attacking a 73-year-old (as of July 1) historian who has been writing about education for 45 years? What’s their problem?”
But the after-effects of Ravitch’s switching sides are not always venomous. The same day she issued her apology to Gist, Ravitch traveled to a D.C. meeting about one of the most controversial strategies in reformers’ playbook: shuttering low-performing schools. In D.C., Rhee closed 20 of them. Focus groups organized by the meeting’s sponsor found that District parents would have rather seen their children’s schools flooded with resources than closed down.