Saving Public Education

An Evening of Dialogue with Diane Ravitch and Yong Zhao

By Roscoe Caron, Larry Lewin and Rachel Rich

It is certainly true that Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s new U.S. Secretary of Education, poses a distinct threat to the institution of public education. She is intent on advancing the privatization, corporatization, standardization, theocratization and profit-taking that have been part of the decades-long assault on public education. Who in America is going to step up to defend the pillar of our democracy, our precious system of public education?

Locally, we have brave individuals — parents, students, teachers and administrators — who speak out publicly on behalf of our schools. This monthly column, Democracy in Education, features their voices for the community to hear.

Nationally, there are leaders as well — big-name scholars, policy-makers, filmmakers — whose analysis and advocacy are tremendously important. Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE) has invited a number of them to town to educate the public about what is happening to public education.

Next month, two of the biggest names in U.S. and global education policy will be showcased in a free public event at the University of Oregon. Diane Ravitch and Yong Zhao will share the stage 7 pm Thursday, April 13, at Straub Hall to talk as friends, colleagues and activists, as they have done in the past in other communities — Ravitch live from her office at New York University and Zhao live on stage. 

Drawing on more than 40 years of research and experience, Ravitch is the nation’s leading advocate for public education and critic of “corporate education reform.” At one time she was the “mother of testing” as under-secretary of education under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Her 2010 best selling book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, details her conversion from the leading advocate for high-stakes standardized testing to the nation’s leading critic.

A prolific writer and a renowned research professor of education, Ravitch has published more than 500 articles and reviews for scholarly and popular publications. Her blog is one of the primary destinations for American educators and has received more than 20 million page views since 2012. 

Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He has presented on six continents and founded research and development institutions to explore innovative education models. He has published over 100 articles and 20 books, including Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, a critique of US educational policy that tries to imitate his native country’s authoritarian approach. Zhao taught at the UO until last year, and his engaging, humorous personality delighted audiences. 

The fight for public education must be joined at every level. In the Oregon Legislature, some important bills have been introduced. Senate Bill 746 would restore the superintendent of public instruction as an elected position. Former governor John Kitzhaber pushed through a bill in 2011 that eliminated the elected position and set up a corporate-controlled board to oversee Oregon’s public education. That board was eliminated a few years ago, which then put the unaccountable Oregon Department of Education in the driver’s seat.

SB 649 would expand the State Board of Education, which oversees the powerful ODE. The bill would expand the State Board to 11 members, representing K-12, community colleges and state universities.

SB 354 would strengthen Oregon’s opt-out law, ensuring that all school districts make all information on opting-out of standardized tests balanced and easily accessible for all parents. Finally, SB 351 would strengthen the current testing auditing law by including costs such as the impacts on classroom instructional time, on curriculum and on teachers’ exercise of professional judgment. 

These proposed Oregon laws signal a movement to regain democratic accountability and to broaden the public education policy decision-making that has become increasingly centralized and remote.

We are at a crossroads. After decades of attacking the institution of public education, its schoolteachers and their unions, the forces of privatization are positioning themselves to sack public monies for their own enrichment through commercialization schemes such as vouchers, for-profit charter schools and standardized-testing dominance.

The resistance movement to defend public education must take place at the local, state and national levels.

Ravitch and Zhao will identify the steps we need to take to fight back knowingly and effectively.

Roscoe Caron, Larry Lewin and Rachel Rich are retired middle and high school teachers in Eugene and Springfield. They are members of the Community Alliance for Public Education, a coalition of parents, teachers, professors, students and community members who challenge the many assaults on public education and who believe in a strong public education as the foundation for American democracy. We meet most Wednesdays at Perugino in downtown Eugene. For more information, visit