It’s the argument Ravitch has been making for a year. “They’re not shoe stores that you can close and move to a different mall,” she said during a panel debate afterwards. “We don’t close the firehouse if there are more fires in the neighborhood. We don’t close the police station if there is more crime in the neighborhood.” Instead, singing from the liberal hymnal, she argued for policies to address the poverty-related “root causes” of academic failure.
Facing off against her in the debate was Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice and where Ravitch once sat on the board. Finn argued that school closings are a rational response to tightened budgets and shrinking enrollment. Ravitch listened with her hands clasped under her chin, staring out into the distance.
It was a poignant moment. The pair were once close: They co-founded an education-reform research clearinghouse in 1981; they profess to adore each other’s families. In an anguished review of Death and Life, Finn cited their 30-year friendship before declaring that Ravitch’s “prescription for the future is guided by wishful thinking, nostalgia and unwarranted faith in an antiquated institutional arrangement.” He took particular issue with Ravitch’s defense of teachers’ unions, which he, like many reformers, sees as a primary obstacle.
Disagreeing so stridently has made the relationship “difficult,” Ravitch said quietly during the coffee break before she and Finn spoke. Are they still friends? “Not the way we used to be.”
Diane and Richard Ravitch divorced in 1986. Today, she lives in a gracious brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough’s poshest neighborhoods. Her longtime companion is Mary Butz, a former New York City public school principal who ran a progressive principal-training program that was shut down by former schools chancellor Klein in 2005.
Sporting an electric-blue turtleneck, leggings, and neat silver bowl-cut as she knocks around a living room lined with bookshelves and decorated in eagles, roosters, and red, white, and blue Americana, Ravitch says she enjoys the education-policy pugilism, Twitter fights and all. “If I’m on Twitter it means I’m not writing. But you know, I think fast, and when I see somebody say, ‘this is right, this is wrong,’ then I want to get into an exchange!” But she says her speaking schedule is so exhausting that she plans to make more of her future appearances via video-conferencing.
A grandmother of three, Ravitch is also excited about her youngest grandson enrolling, this September, at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, one of New York’s most coveted neighborhood schools. Some 65 percent of the kids are white; 80 percent meet or exceed state standards in math, English, science, and social studies. The PTA fundraises, via PayPal and employer matching, to support supplemental programs. At P.S. 167 in Crown Heights, less than three miles away, 99 percent of students are black and Hispanic; fewer than half perform at grade-level in math and reading. There is a PTA, but it doesn’t have a PayPal-enabled website.
And that, to Ravitch, is the problem. P.S. 167 needs more funding and support to improve curriculum and instruction—not blame for being in a tough neighborhood, where it must work with disadvantaged kids whose parents are less able to get involved at school. “All children should get the kind of education I want for my own grandchildren,” Ravitch said. “I still think it’s valuable to know grammar and spelling, even in a computer age. I still think that history should be taught chronologically. Children should know two languages, and one of them should be English.”
So while it’s true that Ravitch has changed her mind, she’s also pretty constant on some basic questions. And, like the disillusioned liberal she was during the 1960s, she’s still profoundly pessimistic about the contemporary scene. Just like 40 years ago, Ravitch fears, the small-c conservatives are losing the argument.
“It’s a very bad time,” she says, dramatically. “These are dark days.”