This post should be read as a companion to one I wrote in review of Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world: both books appeared at almost the same time last year, and I was torn as to which to read first. I believe I read them in the right order, a point I will return to in my next post.
I believe Professor Ravitch's most important point in Reign of Error, which I think a better book than its predecessor, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, since this offers positive solutions rather than merely the insightful criticisms of her previous book, is found on page 310, where she discusses out-of-state contributions to school board races across the country:
"It is a troubling pattern that raises questions about who is bundling the money and why it is sent to certain races. It is not illegal to give campaign contributions to races in other districts and states, but local and state school board races should be determined by those who live in those districts and states, not by the organized power of big donors.
"The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase education policy in this nation".
This is precisely on point. A fascinating expose last weekend in The Washington Post revealed how Bill Gates apparently purchased education policy in the form of support for a common core of standards throughout the majority of the states in this country in just two years, in at least one case before they had even been written. Not that this was some evil plot to get rich, an absurd charge, or was otherwise ill-intended; but the extra political access available to the world's richest man, a genuine philanthropist but also one without a record of solid returns on his educational investments made so far (although I continue to be thankful for his support in our attempt to turn around Locke High School in 2007) -- a man able to convene 80 senators to hear a speech on education he gave in March -- should trouble anyone who reveres America's democratic traditions, including Professor Ravitch.
Barack Obama was the first candidate to turn down public financing of a presidential campaign, and the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court has made a bad trend worse. American democracy has morphed into plutocracy. This should trouble all who care about America's civic traditions, and in this respect Diane Ravitch speaks clearly and forcefully for a dwindling breed of Americans who (adapting the words of President Kennedy) ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.