Like many rich Americans, Nick used to think that focusing their philanthropic efforts in the country’s education system could heal many of our biggest problems. But in The Atlantic last month, he admitted he was wrong—better schools won’t fix America unless we fix inequality first. He’s joined this week by Diane Ravitch, a giant in the education policy world who also changed her mind about what works and what doesn’t. Can these two converts from the theory of educationism find a new way to expand educational opportunity in America while also combating runaway income inequality?
Diane Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Founder and President of the Network for Public Education. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, where she led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards. In her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education’, Ravitch examines her career in education reform and repudiates positions that she once staunchly advocated.
Better Schools Won’t Fix America: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/education-isnt-enough/590611/
Diane Ravitch: Somehow, high-functioning communities and affluent communities always end up having terrific schools, because they don’t have the kinds of problems that very poor communities do.
Nick Hanauer: A better education system will not save our democracy. Higher wages will.
Diane Ravitch: I had the sense, when I read your Atlantic essay, of, “Oh my god, this guy is woke.”
Speaker 3: From the offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer, where we explore everything you wished you’d learned in Econ 101.
Nick Hanauer: I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.
David Goldstein: I’m David Goldstein, Senior Fellow at Civic Ventures. Nick, you recently got tweeted by President Obama.
Nick Hanauer: I know. People’s heads exploded. Yeah, we wrote this piece called Better Schools Won’t Fix America, that appeared as the lead essay in the Atlantic in the July issue. And it’s an attack on what we call educationism, which is the belief that what ails America will be healed if we somehow fix our public schools. It’s a thing that I believe for most of my adult life and have recently come to terms with that it was just wrong, that in fact, if you want to heal America, it’s not the education system that’s failing, it’s the economic system.
David Goldstein: Right.
Nick Hanauer: And what was significant about President Obama’s tweet was that President Obama was an educationist too. Right? He was with me on that whole school reform thing and-
David Goldstein: Race to the Top.
Nick Hanauer: All that stuff. And none of it’s worked really. That’s the problem, is it just hasn’t really worked. And so, when he retweeted the piece, and I think it’s the first essay he’s retweeted in a year and half. This is not something he does routinely, people’s heads exploded, both because he was retweeting the piece, but also because it was, at least it looked like an admission that maybe he was wrong.
David Goldstein: Or at least willing to question his…
Nick Hanauer: His priors. Which is cool.
David Goldstein: You’re not the only one to have a change of heart on educationism.
Nick Hanauer: One of the queens of educationism was a woman named Diane Ravitch, who lead a lot of this thinking over decades, working for conservative think tanks, for George Bush…
David Goldstein: The first Bush administration, and also the Clinton administration
Nick Hanauer: Exactly as a big proponent of charter schools…
David Goldstein: Curriculum reform, the national standards…
Nick Hanauer: High stakes testing…
All of that stuff, and about 10 years ago, well before I did, came to essentially this conclusion that this was all a terrible mistake, and that the problem isn’t the schools, the problem is poverty, and the difficulty that families have. And so she’s been on a mission to let people know that this thinking was wrong. And she’s written a mess of books about it. The Reign of Terror…
David Goldstein: Reign of Error.
Nick Hanauer: Reign of Error. Sorry.
Speaker 4: [inaudible 00:03:31] just say that again
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, okay. It is kind of funny. The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools, and the death and life of great American school system, how testing and choice are undermining education. She’s a remarkable woman, very courageous, and we’re super lucky to have her chat with us. She’s also a research professor of education at New York University, and a historian of education.
Speaker 4: [inaudible 00:04:07]
Nick Hanauer: This is Nick.
Diane Ravitch: Oh, hi Nick. Very nice to meet you virtually.
Nick Hanauer: Nice to meet you.
David Goldstein: And this is David. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.
Diane Ravitch: Hi David.
David Goldstein: So let’s start by
Nick Hanauer: Diane, if you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit about your story, how you came to education. Start at the beginning.
Diane Ravitch: Sure. I’ve been working in education basically forever. I worked in the first Bush administration as Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of research. Before that I had been working at the Columbia Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and then after that I was in various conservative think tanks for many years. So I had a long history as a supporter of charter schools, testing, accountability, and all of that. And then in 2010 I published a book and said, “I’m wrong.” All these things I’ve been advocating for for thirty years are wrong. And so, since then I have been consistently writing about what I think is a better way. And one of the reasons I was very interested in reading, Nick, about your decision to change your mind was that I had gone through that, and I did it very publicly.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah
Diane Ravitch: And it caused a stir. It still does. For years, people would say, “Why did you change your mind?” On the assumption that no one ever changes their mind. And I found that phenomenon amazing, and still people will ask me that. “How come you changed your mind?” And I have to explain that I discovered I was wrong, and they seem to find that amazing, that anyone would ever admit they’re wrong. And I’ve said, “I was wrong.”
David Goldstein: Isn’t that the purpose of education? To change minds? Literally?
Diane Ravitch: Well, you know what, I wrote a book in which I said, “I was wrong.” It’s called The Death and Life of the Great American School System. That came out in 2010. I quoted John Maynard Keynes, and he said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
David Goldstein: Right, exactly.
Diane Ravitch: I learned things. The things that I believed in turned out not to be right, and over time I realized that I was supporting things that I just couldn’t support anymore. And I thought, better to publicly say I was wrong than to continue supporting something that I know doesn’t work. What else can you do?
David Goldstein: Yeah, absolutely.
Nick Hanauer: I think what’s really interesting about this conversation is, certainly you’re not, and I would like to think that I’m not, a stupid person, or a person of ill will. And these ideas were very attractive to me, and you, originally. What was it about those ideas that was attractive? And let’s really go deep on why we were wrong, and where we were wrong.
Diane Ravitch: I think that’s a very important point, because when I go back and say, “Why did I believe this so strongly?” I went to public schools. I’m a graduate of the Houston public schools, and I was there from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and I know now when I go back to Houston that most people that I know, people I’m related to, have their kids either in private school. They’re not in charter schools, but they’re in private schools. There’re Jews going to Baptist schools, and people just choosing not to go to public school. And I think a lot of this has to do with integration. When I went to the public schools in Houston, they were segregated white, and the public schools, over the years, absorbed kids of color, absorbed kids who had disabilities, absorbed kids who came from Mexico and didn’t speak English. And none of that was true when I was in school. They were kind of, when people talk about the good old days, I know what those good old days were like.
Nick Hanauer: They were very white.
Diane Ravitch: They were all white. We had some kids who were trouble, but we didn’t have the kinds of problems that teachers have today. So I think it’s fairly easy to blame the schools and say, “It’s bad teachers, it’s bad schools, and that’s why people are avoiding the schools.” I know that’s not true. I know what it’s about is, people are trying to stay with their own kind. It’s hard, but I just have a hard time understanding how our country can survive if we just stick with our own kind.
I know it isn’t academic, and I’ve been an academic since, I don’t know, a long time ago. I hate to say how long. But I got my doctorate in 1975, and I was late then. I’d been out of college a long time before I went to graduate school. I’m old. So that’s for starters.
But what I realize now is that all the trouble this country’s been through with desegregation, with all of the troubles around the schools, it’s mostly social and economic. And it’s not about the teachers. It’s not about the schools. People talk about the good old days as though there was a time when schools were great, and what they’re really talking about is the schools that didn’t have integration, and the schools that didn’t have kids with disabilities. That’s part of my own personal story, and I know as an academic that integration actually worked, but we abandoned it because it was too hard.
Nick Hanauer: For my own part, as I deconstruct my own journey and my evolving thinking about education and education reform, and so on and so forth, there are really two strands. The first is that I really believed in what I call educationism, which is that if you just get the education system right, all the social and economic ills that the country faces will fall away. That education is the solution to these problems, and that better schools will create better people, and better people will create a better society, and a better society will… then we’ll go off happily into the future.
And then there was another strand of my evolving view, which is that, of course, if you worked on education-related things as long as I did, or you have, one thing that you could not escape was that it wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse. So that sort of frustration fed into this idea that we just have to hold these schools to a higher standard somehow. And if we do, then that will make that first thesis true again somehow. Where I came out was, in fact I had cause and effect completely wrong. It is, more or less, a restatement of your thesis that it’s high-functioning communities that generate great schools, not the other way around. And that the problem that we face in the public schools is that such a high proportion of the kids that end up in those schools come from economically devastated communities. And you can’t fix that with schools, no matter what you do.
Diane Ravitch: I went through a long period in my earlier part of my career where I thought curriculum was the answer, and I still know people who say this. And it’s the story of the Common Core, for example, and the Common Core says, “If all children study the same things, and have the same tests, and have the same teacher training, et cetera, that they’ll all come out at the same place, and that’s the way to eliminate poverty.” But that’s obviously not true, because there are kids who are in the same class, with the same teacher, who have different outcomes. But what you understand, which I figured out a while back, is that the most important determinant of how kids come out is what kind of homes they came from. And that’s kinda sad to discover, because it sounds very determinist. But in fact, the most important correlation with test scores is family income.
David Goldstein: Right.
Diane Ravitch: So when you look at tests, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a state test, a national test, or an international test, the most important determinate of outcomes is family income, of test scores. So when you have kids with high test scores on the SAT, they’re from the wealthiest families.
David Goldstein: Right.
Diane Ravitch: And kids with the lowest scores are from the poorest families. And sometimes you’ll have outliers, but the outliers don’t prove that the proposition is wrong. They just show that sometimes there’re poor kids that, no matter what obstacles are put in front of them, they will get high test scores, and there’re rich kids who will actually be unable to get a high score no matter how hard they try. But they’re outliers. The fact is, you can look at, whether it’s SAT, ACT, or any test you give kids that’s standardized, and they accurately reflect family income and family education. Those two factors are overwhelming.
So if you really want to change society, you would do the kinds of things you were talking about in that absolutely brilliant article in The Atlantic, which is a wage stagnation, and equality. And these are hard topics to deal with, because no one wants to pay more taxes. But I don’t see any other way out, other than to make the kinds of macroeconomic changes that make sure that everybody has access to a decent wage, or a well-paying job, and has the chance to raise their family in circumstances where they’re not gonna go hungry at night.
You probably haven’t seen it, but the last book I wrote was called Reign of Error, in 2013. And the reason I wrote it was because many people have said, “Well, you know, you’re very critical of what we’re doing, and you don’t like charter schools, and you don’t like [inaudible 00:14:20]. What are your solutions?” So I said, okay, I’m gonna write a book with my solutions.
So about a third or forty percent of that book was, here are the research-based answers, and it starts with prenatal care. And when you look at United Nations figures of, where do we stand as a country in providing decent medical care to women? We’re tied with Somalia. It’s that bad, that if you’re poor in this country, you’re not likely to have decent medical care during your pregnancy. And the outcomes of that are very bad for kids, because they’re likely to be born with some kind of a disability because the mother couldn’t get medical care while she was pregnant.
But that’s the beginning, and there are lots of other research-based answers that you would pursue. You could reduce class sizes, that’s a research-based solution. You can’t teach forty kids, or thirty kids in a class when half of them are hungry and haven’t had decent medical care, and on and on. It all comes back, in the end, to socioeconomics. You fix that, and the schools will look terrific. The bottom line is that, as you said, the socioeconomics matter a whole lot more than the particular school or teacher. Somehow, high-functioning communities and affluent communities always end up having terrific schools because they don’t have the kinds of problems that very poor communities do.
Nick Hanauer: Our real breakthrough, here, was in our very in-depth analysis of neoliberalism, which is the dominant economic meaning system that frames how we understand these problems in the West. And the most evil thing about neoliberalism is that it trains you to believe that the economic outcomes, that are reflected in the society, are a product of, essentially, natural law. Laws of nature. And that they are immutable. That poor people are poor because that’s what they’re worth, and that they’re nothing you can do to the economic system to change those outcomes, other than for them to get Harvard MBAs, in which case they would be investment bankers, and then they would not be poor anymore. And what it doesn’t permit you to see, is that the reason that they’re poor is that they’re not paid enough money by their employers. And once those scales fall from your eyes, and once you can see that how much people are paid isn’t a product, isn’t a consequence of their marginal productivity, but rather the power that they have relative to their employers. Then you can, quite clearly, see that it’s not education that’s creating these outcomes. It’s the economic system. And then you’re like, “Oh no.” We’ve been working on the wrong problem.
Diane Ravitch: Yeah, you know, I had this sense when I read your Atlantic essay of, “Oh my god, this guy is woke.” The scales have fallen from your eyes. Michael Young, he wrote a very famous book many years ago called The Rise of the Meritocracy.
Nick Hanauer: That’s an old book.
Diane Ravitch: Yeah, it’s an old book, but you had a new introduction about it ten years after it came out, I think it was 1958. He said the problem with standardized testing, among other things, is that it leads the people who are on top to believe they deserve to be on top because they’re so smart, and their test scores are so good, that whatever advantages they get, they deserve it, and the people who didn’t get the high scores don’t deserve it because it’s their own fault. I immediately resonated with that, because he says they’re members of what he calls the lucky sperm club. They started off on third base and thought they hit a home run.
I had high test scores. I came from a very large family, and I have to say I was not a person of inherited wealth, but I had very high test scores. And I thought, “I’m smarter than anybody else, and I deserve it.” It was only later in life that I said, “I’m lucky that I had high test scores, but I don’t deserve a better life than people who have low test scores.” And that even if you don’t have high test scores, you can be great at so many other things that are not measured by standardized tests, and if we want to have a really good society, we can’t have this artifact called a standardized test deciding who deserves to have a good life, and who doesn’t. That’s kind of against my own self interest, but that’s where I came out.
Nick Hanauer: I could not agree more, and, by the way, you’re not gonna have a functioning democracy if the only people who can earn enough to lead dignified lives are software developers and investment bankers. ‘Cause what are the other 98%-
David Goldstein: That’s only half of the SAT. They did well on the math portion.
Nick Hanauer: Maybe lawyers.
Diane Ravitch: It seems we’re heading in that direction, though.
You appear in my new book. And the funny thing is, the first couple of mentions of your name is when you’re supporting Bill Gates in Washington state. I’m very, very familiar with four referendums, and you win the fourth referendum, and how very few people put up the millions of dollars to win that referendum. But then I followed the story through to the court decision that says “You can’t get public money.” And then the next decision says, “Well, you can get lottery money.” And then comes the first evaluations that says the kids going to charter schools are not getting better outcomes than the kids not in charter schools. And then comes the next headline that says charter schools that were opened at all of this expense are closing, because very few people are enrolling for them. And I think, why so many millions?
So then I end up, you’re in my last chapter…is here’s somebody who figured it out. So you’re one of the heroes of my book, Nick.
Nick Hanauer: Thank god. I’m glad that you didn’t finish the book early.
Diane Ravitch: That’s true. If I did that a year ago-
Nick Hanauer: I’d have been a goat.
David Goldstein: See, Nick? This is one of the benefits of slow writing.
Diane Ravitch: But I guess, from my point of view, I wonder…and people always ask me, “Why did you change your mind?” So I have to say, “How did you change your mind?” Because you are with the crème de la crème. In the book I wrote in 2010, I had a chapter called The Billionaire Boys’ Club, which I think a lot of the people mentioned didn’t like it very much. But how did you, given where you are coming from… We’re coming at this from very different angles. I as an academic, and you as somebody who’s part of the group that I’ve been studying. How did you figure this out?
Nick Hanauer: My real transformation came because my intuitions told me ten years ago, that all this work I had put in to public education reform and funding, wasn’t delivering the benefits to the society that I lived in that I imagined that they would. And I began to see that it was the economics system, more than the school system, that was at the heart of the problem. And so, Diane, among other things, we cooked up the $15 minimum wage here. And it was through that process, of just doing that, that you began to recognize that the best thing you could do for the schools was to increase the wages of the parents. Also, having my own kids, right?
So I have two lovely children. I have a nineteen-year-old boy and a seventeen-year-old girl, and to get my son to do his homework remains as one of the single hardest tasks I have ever had in my life. I mean, he grew up in insane privilege, with me and my wife standing over him twelve hours a day. He still wouldn’t turn in his homework. And I said to myself, “Oh my god, if it’s this hard for us to get our son to do this, think about the poor people who struggle to get by on $7 an hour.” How do they do it? It’s impossible. It’s impossible. And that was also a big awakening for us, just our own children.
Diane Ravitch: I think that it was tremendously important to me to discover that it was the combination of family, and also school funding, and that the charter school movement…and as I said, I was there at the beginning and I was very supportive of charters. I was working in the first Bush administration. And then I was working in different conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution, and we were supporting charters. Some of my colleagues at the think tanks supported vouchers.
But what I realized, and I guess this is what turned me, was that I was actually supporting, by supporting charters and vouchers, the further defunding of the public schools, which made it even harder for them to compete, because the more charters thrived, the less money there was for public schools. And the charter sector, 90% of it is non-union, which means that the teachers come and go with great rapidity. Even in the best charters, there’s a very high teacher turnover. And what kids don’t need is instability and turnover. And charter people will say, “It doesn’t matter if charters close, because that’s baked into the model. They’re supposed to close.” But they’re not supposed to close, schools should be stable.
Nick Hanauer: That’s nonsense.
Diane Ravitch: Kids need stability. It’s not like a startup, you’re not trying a new tech company and saying, “Well that didn’t work out, let’s pull the plug.” And that’s happening right now in the charter sector, with great frequency. In fact, one of the points in my new book is that there has been a fairly dramatic decline in the number of new charters opening. And the number that are closing, every year, has begun to approach the number that are opening every year. And this is the first time that’s ever happened. So the sector itself is very unstable, and its great successes are built on this idea that if you can cherry-pick your kids, you’ll get good results. And you can cherry-pick the kids, and you can get good results. We know this. But the very high-performing charter chains are the ones that have the most attrition, which means that they are sucking out the best kids from public schools, leaving the public schools even worse off. Not only taking their funding, but taking their best students, and then crowing that they got higher test scores.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, but the other real light bulb for me was just recognizing that it was the economic system. Again, I started on my education quest not because I was a lover of education. You came from the world of education, I didn’t. I just wanted to create a high-functioning society. And the more you looked at it, the more you realized that we are creating this society where the only people who could live adequate lives had a graduate degree in some field, got an MBA or something like that, and that every other profession was a poverty-wage profession. Somebody’s got to do the janitorial work.
David Goldstein: Somebody’s gotta be the school teacher, ’cause in most parts of the country, starting teacher is poverty wage.
Nick Hanauer: Exactly, and that those wages, for instance, a teacher with a master’s degree… Those folks aren’t underpaid because they’re poorly educated. They’re underpaid because the powers that be pay them poorly. And once you see that relationship more clearly, then you recognize that we cannot rely on a school system to generate an equitable, stable, secure democracy. You have to rely on the economic system and the power structures. And that, for me, was the real thing.
And I will tell you this other thing, Diane, is that, as you must know, I run around the country talking about inequality. And when I’m in a group of rich people, the number one pushback I get is it’s all the schools’ fault. Everywhere I go, it’s like, “if you just fix the education system, then we don’t have this problem.” After I’d heard that about a hundred times, I was like, we have to organize a response to this excuse, which is what it is, right? If you’re a wealthy person, it’s shifting the blame, right? It’s this insanely effective way of making yourself, excluding yourself from the problem, which I think is wrong and damaging.
Diane Ravitch: Well, Nick, something that I think is important to realize, and I recognize this because I’ve been around a long time, is that people on the far right, and I’m thinking now of people like Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers, and the libertarian right, have always hated public schools. And I know this because, being a public school graduate in Houston, I was very aware that there were people who said, “You just can’t throw money at the schools.” Meanwhile they were happy to throw money at the private schools that their own kids went to, but not at the public schools that the people like me went to.
I guess it was interesting confirmation for me to see that line in your article where you said that forty of the fifty most successful family foundations in America are supporting this idea that school are the problem, and you can’t look outside the schools to find the solution. And I find, this is something that has fascinated me for at least the last decade. I’ve been trying to figure out, how do I reach people who you associate with, but I usually don’t? And get through the message that you’ve gotta stop beating up on the schools, because the main success here has been to demoralize people who are teachers, so that we have teacher shortages all over the country. And you can’t have a decent education system if you’re not gonna have good people go into teaching, without feeling that they’re sacrificing their life, and they’re gonna live a life of semi-poverty by being a teacher.
You have to have people say, “This is a noble profession, and the rewards are not only psychic income, but I can afford to live a middle class life.” We can’t say at the top of your career you’ll be making $65 or $70,000 a year, which as Warren Buffett once said, “That’s less than my secretary.” You have to have a profession that is well-paid, and not just by merit pay, because merit pay doesn’t work. It’s not like people are holding back their best lessons and saying, “I’m not gonna teach my best, unless somebody pays me more, then I’ll teach my best.” People are in the classroom knocking themselves out every day trying to get across history, and science, and the arts, and all of this. And we have to make schools where they’re rewarding places to be a student as well as a teacher.
I have a lot of concern for the tone-deafness of people who have the resources saying, “Turn off the spigot, don’t fund those schools, they’re bad schools. Let’s replace them with schools that aren’t come and go.” And I have to mention one of the things that I did several years ago was to help create an organization to fight for these ideas. It’s called the Network for Public Education, and all my friends would be very angry if I didn’t mention this. We don’t have a whole lot of money, but what we have is almost 400,000 people who are members of this group, and mostly they’re teachers and parents.
We’re working with Baptist ministers across the state of Texas, who believe in the separation of church and state. Working with the pastors for Texas children, and parent groups across Texas, those groups have been able to stop vouchers in Texas, which as you know is a very conservative state, year after year. We’ve not been as successful in every state. There are states like Kentucky that have passed charter legislation. And the charter bills, by the way, are now coming from the far right. There’re not democrats in Kentucky supporting charters. West Virginia just passed a charter bill. Every single democrat voted against charters in West Virginia because they know their schools are desperately under-funded. We’ve been doing, as an organization, the best we can.
Nick Hanauer: Diane, in our remaining time, let’s get to that notion of the best possible public school. If you were a benevolent dictator, absolute power to solve this problem. Benevolent, as opposed to the one we have in the White House right now. What would you do? If you were the education czar, what would you do to improve education in this country?
Diane Ravitch: I’d say that the first thing I would do would be to try to have wraparound services, so that when kids have very stressful environments that they’re living in, that they have the social workers and the psychologists that they need to meet their needs. I’d insist that teachers are well paid, and that it’s a profession that’s attractive to very well-educated young men and women, who want to come into it, not for a two-year stint, or even a three-year stint, but who will say, “This is a career I would like to make. This is such a rewarding and exciting profession, not just economically, but because the psychic rewards are huge.”
If I had the money and the power, I would make sure that there was a fantastic arts program in every school, so that kids had reason to come to school other than to take tests. I would eliminate the whole federal testing regime, because it’s been a massive failure. We have spent, literally, as a society, billions of dollars on testing and test prep over the last twenty years, and it’s been a waste because the test scores, nationally, haven’t budged for at least the last decade. So all that money should be redirected towards encouraging creativity, critical thinking, the arts, making sure that when kids… that first of all there is a school band, that there is a school orchestra, and that the kids have uniforms, and they have instruments, and basic stuff like that. I would like to see the public schools have the same resources and programs and opportunities for intellectual development, and also aesthetic pleasure, and all the great things about growing up, and athletics, and et cetera, that is available to private school kids.
I think that, I go back to something that John Dewey wrote more than a century ago when he said what the best and wisest parent wants for their child is what we should want for all the children of the community, and anything less than that is not only unlovely, but destroys our democracy. And I think that, to me, is the most profound thing ever written about education, which is that we should want for all children what we want for our own children. That’s my ideal.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. There’s no mystery about what a great school looks like. Just go to the best private school in New York City and you know. Just do that, everywhere.
Diane Ravitch: Right, and there’re many of them, and there’re many great public schools. There’re many great public schools, but they are in wealthy communities, where the community is willing to pay the price of having great schools. And we, as a society, are not willing to pay the price of having great schools for all kids. And so, we have a state like Florida, for example, that now has four or five different voucher programs, where the kids are given basically $4 or $5,000 and told, “Go find any school you want.” And there’re no standards whatsoever for the voucher schools in Florida. So they’re going to backwoods religious schools, where they learn their science from the Bible. And I keep thinking, if you really want to prepare kids to live in the twenty-first century, and to be good at whatever it is they want to be, they’re not gonna learn their science from the Bible. You can revere the Bible without considering it to be a science textbook.
Nick Hanauer: I’ve got one final question for you, Diane. You’ve done a lot of good work. Why are you still doing this? Why aren’t you retired?
Diane Ravitch: First of all, I feel I have a lot to make up for. I had years of advocating for high-stakes testing and accountability, and teachers and students have to be held accountable if their scores don’t go up. So I had this awakening about a decade ago, and said, “You know, I’m wrong.” So I have a lot to make up for. But I also just feel very strongly that, as a society, we can’t continue to go in the direction we’re going in now, without losing something that I’ve believed in all my life, which is I grew up revering America. This present moment we live in today, with a president who is openly racist, it’s terrifying. It’s like all of the things I grew up believing are turning out to be at risk, and I want to see the America that I’ve always believed in become good for everybody, and not just for me. Not just for my kids, not just for your kids, but for all the kids. If that sounds corny, maybe it’s ’cause it is.
David Goldstein: Not at all
Nick Hanauer: That’s fantastic.
David Goldstein: I hope you get to see it.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, as do I
Diane Ravitch: Thank you so much for calling, it’s been a great pleasure.
Nick Hanauer: Thank you, thank you so much.
Diane Ravitch: Keep writing and speaking up.
Nick Hanauer: I will, thank you.
Diane Ravitch: Thank you, bye bye.
Nick Hanauer: Bye bye.
David Goldstein: So we’re talking about this, Nick, because you wrote a piece in the July issue of The Atlantic.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, just to be clear, we wrote a piece.
David Goldstein: We wrote a piece, thank you. We wrote a piece in the July issue.
Nick Hanauer: Took us a year.
David Goldstein: It did.
Nick Hanauer: Brutal.
David Goldstein: Brutal, brutal. Part of the reason why it was so brutal, Nick, was that you were trying to tell the truth, and not burn bridges-
Nick Hanauer: All of my bridges.
David Goldstein: So how are your wealthy friends, who really have long embraced educationism…How are they responding to this critique?
Nick Hanauer: It’s mixed. When the piece went out, we got some criticism from folks who said that this is not a real thing, and that people know this, and stuff like that. But I stand up in front of crowds a lot, and talk about inequality, and I can tell you definitively that the biggest pushback I get is the educationism pushback. That the problem isn’t inequality, that the problem is the damn education system, and if we just had charter schools and no unions that people would get a decent education, and they’d all get good jobs, and we don’t have anything else to worry about. And I think, in the piece, we mentioned that basically all the big foundations-
David Goldstein: Forty out of the fifty largest-
Nick Hanauer: Forty-five, I think-
David Goldstein: Family foundations, make education one of their primary activities, whereas only one…We could find one that mentioned anything about wages or income or poverty.
Nick Hanauer: And clearly, the bigger lever, if you want to make the country work better and, in fact, improve schools, is not so much to invest in new curriculum, but to invest in labor standards and ensure the people are paid well enough to both have a tax base to afford good schools, but also families that are stable enough to make sure their kids can function in school, too.
Some people pushed back. Some surprising people were moved by some of these arguments. And I think it’s a very important argument to get out there. I think it’s very important for people to just face up to the fact that education really is only about 20% of what defines how you’re gonna do in life. Wages, if you’re really honest, are 75 or 80% of the remaining 80%. If you pay people well, and treat them decently, good things happen. And the only thing that prevents that from occurring is power differentials.
David Goldstein: So despite how totally, totally wrong you were on charter schools, I know your heart was always in the right place. But I wanna ask you a question, and I think this sums up another important point. How much do you think you spent, over the years, on education reform?
Nick Hanauer: Oh good god, I have no idea. I mean-
David Goldstein: Millions.
Nick Hanauer: Millions, I don’t know. And so much time. I don’t even know how to calculate it.
David Goldstein: And how much money do you think you spent on passing a $15 minimum wage?
Nick Hanauer: Well, about the same, millions. But if you prepare the efficacy, it’s clear which is the better lever. The $15 minimum wage efforts, to date, probably I think have affected something like thirty million workers, probably are generating an incremental $100-150 billion annually, and that’s clearly the bigger lever and the better lever and what folks should help with, should people out there decide that they want to help with something.
David Goldstein: Right, so donating money to schools, not a bad thing.
Nick Hanauer: No, it’s great.
David Goldstein: Not a bad thing.
Nick Hanauer: It’s a good thing. Everything we do to improve our education system is a positive. It’s just massively inadequate to the task at hand. A better education system will not save our democracy. Higher wages will. Full stop. That’s my message.
David Goldstein: Okay, full stop.
Nick Hanauer: This is Nick Hanauer, you’re reached the magic voicemail box where you can leave me a question. All you have to do is state your name, where you’re calling from, and your question, as clearly as possible.
Speaker 5: Hey Nick and company, this is Warren from Toronto, Canada. Question about capitalism and climate change. With growth of even 3% a year in just over twenty years we wind up doubling the size of the global economy, and the planet seems currently unable to sustain that level of growth. Is there a model of capitalism that provides decent incomes for people, without requiring growth? Growth has always been indicated as one of the [inaudible 00:41:06] of capitalism. Is there a way of achieving effective capitalism that achieves the goal of solving problems, without ramping up growth that destroys the planet?
Thanks so much for all you do, really enjoy the podcast.
Nick Hanauer: Warren from Canada, those Canadians always ask the best questions, don’t they? Those darn Canadians.
Here’s, I think, what our view is. The word “growth” is a big word. It means a lot of things to a lot of people, but it presently is defined as increases in GDP, which presently defined as output. We believe strongly that one of the first big and important steps in, essentially, reforming how we think about economics, is to change our definition of growth from output to outcomes. So, move from how much stuff we make to how we improve the material circumstances of people. And what we call that is solutions to human problems. And once you think about it in that way, there’re all sorts of ways for us to dematerialize the economy, while simultaneously improving people’s lives.
Here’s what we think won’t work, is the North Korea plan where we all sort of huddle in darkness and turn out all of the lights, and don’t do anything. I think one of the most unrelenting features of humanity is the continual desire to improve our circumstances. And we have to find a way to do that for people without simultaneously incinerating the planet.
David Goldstein: Right. I think, here’s a great practical example of that. Moving from incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs is growth, yet you’re using a hell of a lot less electricity-
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, 90%.
David Goldstein: For the same amount of light. On an early podcast of ours, the physicist Cesar Hidalgo made the point that human knowledge and know-how is the only factor of production that can increase in per capita terms. And so, if you think about it that way, rather than growth coming from consuming more and more natural resources, it can consume more and more knowledge and know-how.
Nick Hanauer: Correct.
David Goldstein: And knowledge and know-how is both infinite and ethereal. It doesn’t embody any matter or energy, per se.
Nick Hanauer: That’s right. And so, we have, of course, an enormous challenge, and an existential challenge, to find a way to continue to improve the circumstances of people on planet earth, particularly the least fortunate, without incinerating the planet in the meantime. But I do think that by very programmatically making the bad things a lot more expensive, like consuming fossil fuels, and the good things less expensive, like services or experiences-
David Goldstein: Good theater versus bad theater is growth.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, exactly.
David Goldstein: A good hamburger, well, a good veggie burger versus a bad veggie burger. Look, the great new veggie burgers that are coming on the market, that’s growth.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, and doing a Skype for free, versus having to get on an airplane to go meet with somebody face-to-face, that’s also economic growth, despite the fact that one thing is free and the other thing costs a lot of money.
David Goldstein: So to sum up, Warren, capitalism, yeah, in some form or another, that’s based on growth. But I think, Nick, you agree that we can dematerialize growth, and continue to get all the benefits from it.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, I do.
David Goldstein: We love to answer questions from all over the world, even Canada, so if you’ve got a question for Nick and the crew at Pitchfork Economics, please give us a call at 731-388-9334, and leave a message.
Nick Hanauer: So in the next episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’re gonna talk about a very important way to think about the evolving nature of labor standards, which is portable benefits.
Speaker 3: Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures. The magic happens in Seattle, in partnership with Larj Media, that’s L-A-R-J Media, and The Young Turks Network. Find us on Twitter and Facebook at Civic Action. Follow our writing on Medium at Civic Skunkworks, and peek behind the podcast scenes on Instagram at Pitchfork Economics. And one more, you should definitely follow Nick on Twitter at Nick Hanauer. As always, a big thank you to our guests, and thanks to you for listening, from our team at Civic Ventures, Nick Hanauer, Zach Silk, Jasmin Weaver, Jessyn Farrell, Stephanie Ervin, David Goldstein, Paul Constant, Stephen Paolini, and Annie Fadely. See you next week.