Ravitch criticizes school closings, charter expansion

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In a Monday morning speech at the City Club of Chicago, education reformer turned critic Diane Ravitch slammed the initiatives she once supported – such as standardized testing and sanctions for failing schools – as “the status quo.”

In their place, she prescribed a different vision for schools: early childhood education for all students, strict limits on charter school expansion, and public policy changes to reduce poverty and school segregation.

The U.S. has always been at the bottom of international test rankings, Ravitch said, because of its high child poverty rate compared to other industrialized countries.

She cited research showing that African-American students who attend integrated schools earn more money, have better educational outcomes and even live longer.

After the speech, Ravitch conceded that Chicago, where 86 percent of students are Latino or African-American, is a long way from being able to desegregate its schools. But, she suggested, high-quality, non-selective magnet schools – which presumably would select students by lottery – could attract more middle-class families to the system.

Ravitch said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn asked the City Club, often a platform for more conservative speakers, to invite her. “Facts are stubborn things,” he said as he was leaving, thanking her for her talk.

Ravitch said she has worked with new schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and is hopeful she will set a better tone for the school system. “It’s a question of – does she have the nerve to stand up to the mayor? The mayor seems hell-bent on closing schools,” Ravitch said.

While Ravitch believes declining enrollment is a valid reason to close schools, she noted that the district has also been expanding charter schools. Charters were originally intended to just to help the neediest students, Ravitch said. She also called for a cap on charter CEO salaries and a ban on for-profit operators and education management organizations.

CTU President Karen Lewis said at a press conference with Ravitch after the speech that “you don’t have a school problem (in CPS), you have a real estate problem.”

Lewis added: “We have lost population. If you close them, you still have to pay for them. These schools have to sit there unattended and un-dealt with.”

Juan Rangel, CEO of United Neighborhood Organization, which runs the UNO charter schools, also attended Ravitch’s speech. He said he and Ravitch have common ground in wanting a rich curriculum for students.

However, he said, Ravitch’s criticism that charter schools increase segregation was “a stupid comment.” In Chicago, he said, “the charters mirror the neighborhood schools.”

“I am not responsible for the history of this city,” he said. “I am trying to address a severe overcrowding problem in the neighborhood schools.”