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March 9, 2010; Wall Street Journal | Diane Ravitch is a long-time educator, a former assistant secretary of the Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush, an ally of conservative educator Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (Ravitch was a founding board member), and a longtime advocate of charter schools. In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Ravitch disowns her support of the nation’s 5,000 charter schools, despite the advent of President Obama, a liberal Democrat who is supporting charters with more vigor than Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II did in their administrations.

Ravitch claims that the idea that charters “would unleash a new era of innovation and effectiveness” has not been met and will not be. “The only major national evaluation of charter schools,” according to Ravitch, found 17% of charter schools performing better than traditional public schools, 46% the same as public schools, and 37% significantly worse.

She further notes that charters enroll smaller proportions of students with limited English speaking skills and students with disabilities, and that many charters “counsel out” the lowest performing students. Rather than significantly improving education, Ravitch contends that they only “tinker around the edges of the system,” affect the lives of only a few students, and have no beneficial impact on the other 97% of students attending regular public schools.

She concludes that charters contribute to “creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it.” This is a damning critique from a former unabashed supporter of charter schools and the panoply of conservative policy solutions to public education.

Nonprofits that have bought into the charter school promise would be well advised to read her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.”—Rick Cohen