Diane Ravitch on Pete Buttigieg’s Troubled Education Record

I’ve come to the conclusion that, on K–12 public education, Pete Buttigieg is a stealth corporate reformer.

Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. David Becker / Getty Images

There are many reasons why I would like to support Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He’s young, he’s well educated, he’s smart, he has an admirable record of service to his country, and he’s brimming with ideas. I find him very attractive on many levels.

But on education, he is a stealth corporate reformer.

I had an inkling of this when I read a review of his autobiography, which described his formative years at McKinsey and his data-driven, technocratic approach to solving problems. But I didn’t reach a judgment.

Then I learned more when a friend sent me an invitation to a fundraiser for Mayor Pete, hosted by Reed Hastings. Hastings is the billionaire founder of Netflix who is a charter-school zealot. He served on the California State Board of Education, where he used his influence to minimize any regulation of charters. Since then, he has given many millions of dollars to charter schools as well as to the charter-school lobby, the California Charter Schools Association. He created a fund of $100 million to promote the privatization of public schools by charter-school expansion. Hastings has said that he looks forward to the day when all schools are run by corporations, not elected school boards.

I tweeted the invitation, and it got a lot of attention. Carol Burris heard from Pete’s national political director, Stephen Brokaw. He wanted to correct any misperception we at the Network for Public Education had about where Mayor Pete stands on education. He is against vouchers. He is against for-profit charters. He (or his team) visited Roxbury Prep in Massachusetts and was very impressed with their high test scores. Brokaw cited Roxbury Prep as the kind of nonprofit charter that offered lessons to public schools.

Carol responded that the issue is not whether charters are for-profit or nonprofit, because many nonprofits are run by for-profit organizations. Only one state in the nation — Arizona — allows for-profit charters. In Michigan, for example, for-profit charters are prohibited, but 80 percent of the state’s charters are managed by for-profit companies. She also pointed out that Roxbury Prep has very high suspension rates, the highest in the state, and the state has repeatedly admonished Roxbury Prep.

Carol suggested that he speak to me. Brokaw then invited me to have a conversation with Sonal Shah, who is national policy director, and Sally Mayes, who is “helping” the campaign on education. Shah, I learned later, is amazingly accomplished, but I saw, to my dismay, that part of her commitment to innovation was to “incubate” Teach For India. In the past, I have been contacted by union teachers in India who complained about Teach For India, echoing the complaints often expressed here about Teach For America (TFA). Wendy Kopp created both TFA and the international “Teach For All,” which includes Teach For India.

The three of us spoke last week. It was a frustrating conversation because we were at opposite poles. We disagreed about whether charters are effective, whether they are sufficiently regulated, whether they need more oversight. We disagreed about the value of annual testing. I said that no high-performing nation has annual testing for every child in grades three through eight, as the United States does. They said I was wrong and cited Japan and South Korea. I corrected them and said those nations have periodic testing, not annual testing. I asked whether their candidate wanted to appeal to the 6 percent who send their children to charters or the 90 percent who don’t. I did not get an answer.

I subsequently learned from LinkedIn that Sally Mayes is senior director of Teach For America’s Leadership for Educational Equity, where she has worked for six years. Its board consists of two billionaires — Emma Bloomberg and Arthur Rock (who subsidizes TFA interns who work for members of Congress) — and someone from McKinsey.

I had subsequent emails with Sonal Shah, who is an economist at Georgetown University and who previously worked at Google and Goldman Sachs, and directed the Obama administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House. She told me that the campaign has reached out to consult with John King, Jim Shelton, and Randi Weingarten.

John King succeeded Arne Duncan as secretary of education. King was previously the founder of the no-excuses Roxbury Prep. Then he was commissioner of education in New York, where his fierce advocacy for Common Core State Standards and testing outraged parents and helped to create the opt-out movement.

Jim Shelton had a leadership role at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, worked for Arne Duncan in charge of innovation grants for Race to the Top, and then ran the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Mayor Pete may have many things going for him, but his education agenda is not one of them. If he were president, he would continue the failed Bush-Obama agenda.

If he runs against Trump, I will, of course, support him and vote for him. I will vote for anyone who wins the Democratic nomination.

But not in the primaries.

I am willing to change course if Mayor Pete makes clear that he supports fully public schools that are accountable to an elected school board and that he would eliminate the federal Charter Schools Program, created by the Clinton administration in 1994 and funded with $6 million to help jump-start new charters. That program has grown into a $440 million slush fund for corporate charter chains, which is far from its original purpose. There is a long time from now until the primaries, and I will keep an open mind.