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Ravitch and Roemer debate education reform in Baton Rouge

Education historian Diane Ravitch and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Chas Roemer debated the way education is being overhauled in Louisiana on Thursday, March 14. Roemer, defending the status quo of Gov. Jindal’s reforms, was clearly outmatched.

“Louisiana is on the wrong track,” Ravitch said, adding that the state “is on the way to dismantling the public education system” in order to funnel money away from public schools.

The Jindal plan, she said, is to “hand off students and taxpayer dollars to little religious schools, entrepreneurs, chain schools and for-profit corporations.”

Ravitch drew on a wealth of data from around the world to demonstrate that vouchers, charter schools and merit pay for teachers do nothing to improve student achievement. The Jindal plan to link teacher evaluations, tenure, and employment to student test scores is “junk science,” she said.

Declaring that too many schools in Louisiana are failing, Roemer said that the competition created by vouchers, charter schools and other providers gives parents a necessary choice in their children’s education.

Roemer’s faith in a free-market approach to education reform was evident throughout his presentation. The BESE president consistently referred to parents as “customers” and schools as “products.”

“I call it my money back guarantee,” Roemer said about his approach to education. “We will teach your child or you will get your money back.”

Ravitch responded tartly to Roemer’s faith in the corporate approach to education, saying “I just don’t think that schools ought to be run like businesses. They’re not businesses.”

While Roemer referred throughout his talk to test scores, Ravitch said it is inappropriate to base so much of our reform efforts on standardized testing.

Overemphasizing testing limits children’s exposure to critical thinking skills and blunts their problem-solving ability, she said. It is an approach that does not prepare children for the rapidly changing world they will face when they leave school.

“Children spend their lives trying to figure out what the test makers want them to answer,” she said. “We are preparing factory workers for the 20th Century.”

In a question and answer session following their opening remarks, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan asked Roemer why the state established a radical, statewide voucher program without considering the results of a 2008-2011 voucher pilot program in New Orleans.

Those results showed that voucher students in New Orleans performed no better, and in many cases worse, than students in public schools.

“The results that are most important to me,” Roemer answered, “are conversations I’ve had with parents…they are the customers.

“The critical factor at the end of the day,” Roemer said, “is that parents should have a choice.”

Ravitch debunked the belief that voucher schools are superior with data from Milwaukee, which has had a massive voucher and charter program for some 20 years.

With about 20 percent of Milwaukee’s students in voucher schools and another 20 percent in charter schools, she said, results in those schools are no better than in traditional public schools.

That’s true, she said, even though the public schools are required to accept special needs students and others who have been rejected by voucher and charter schools.

One audience member asked why the state allows religious schools that accept vouchers to teach non-scientific myths such as young-earth creationism in place of established scientific theories.

Ravitch said that religious dogma has no place in a science class supported by public education funds.

“We must make sure that children are taught modern science, modern mathematics, and modern history by the best authorities we have in the country, using the best materials available,” she said.

Roemer defended using public funds to teach religious faith, saying “We have to respect that we have a large number of religious schools in this state.”

“To dishonor their ability to practice their faith is an injustice as well,” Roemer said.

Even though religious schools may teach their faith-based science theories to voucher students, Roemer said, those students will be expected to answer questions about evolution correctly on standardized tests.
“What we test in this state is the science of evolution,” Roemer said.

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