Guernica: This reform movement is backed by so many powerful and wealthy entities, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Is it possible for the country to change direction when it comes to education?
Diane Ravitch: I think over time we will change course. I wouldn’t continue to be in the midst of this struggle if I thought it was impossible.
More and more people are starting to understand what the end game is with this reform, which is to destroy the commons, to destroy what belongs to all of us, and to replace it with these choices. They are not even very good choices. I mean, the stories about corrupt charters… The Detroit Free Press had a weeklong series about how the state of Michigan spends a billion dollars a year on charters, and they don’t do any better than the regular public schools. And among them are the charters where there’s nepotism, conflict of interest, self-dealing, fraud, and corruption. Neighborhood public schools are being destroyed in order to, in some cases, line the pockets of people who are of dubious morality. This isn’t what people pay taxes for.
My favorite story at the moment happens to be a trial that occurred recently in Ohio, where a pastor and his wife started a charter school, and he was arrested and brought to trial because over a million dollars was diverted to his church and to businesses that he owned. And his lawyer’s defense was that he wasn’t an educator, he didn’t really know what he was doing, and he saw easy money and greed got the better of him. That was his defense! Greed got the better of him. All of those millions are just lying there for the taking.
The usual fraud is when the charter company buys the school property and then rents it back to itself and charges the state a million dollars or so in rent so that the actual money that’s being made is not on the tuition but on the leases. There’s a lot of money that’s being made that way. People are very ingenious. There have been stories about the charters in South Florida, where one chain in particular has acquired over $100 million in properties. And all of it, the public money, belongs to them.
Guernica: These are funds that are being diverted from the local public schools?
Diane Ravitch: Of course. It’s all public money. The League of Women Voters did a report on charters in Florida, and they pointed out the number of people in the legislature who are in the charter industry, or who are married to someone who runs a charter chain, or who have a sister who is in the charter business—and yet they are in charge of making decisions about how much money is going to go to charters. So the charter people—and this goes for those running virtual charters, too—they have been very clever about lobbying and placing friends in key positions in the legislature.
The biggest charter chain is associated with a Turkish imam, the Gülen charters. If you look up Fethullah Gülen, he’s very involved in Turkish politics and he lives in the Poconos. Fethullah Gülen leads a movement in Turkey which is very much at odds with the prime minister. He has a major political movement, and he also has about 120 charter schools in the US. They bring in Turkish teachers, and some of them can barely speak English, but they come in as math and science teachers. In Ohio, they have a lot of Gülen schools, and they take the legislators on free trips to Turkey. There are more Gülen schools in Texas than anywhere else. The FBI is investigating the Gülen schools.
I mean, someone could make a movie about this and it would be unbelievable.
It’s all unbelievable stuff. We used to have a public-school system where the money was devoted to the kids. Now we have public money being diverted to private businesses—to, in this case, a business that has roots in Turkey.