Diane Ravitch is Not Telling the Truth

At all.
Blog Post
Susan Ruggles
Nov. 28, 2016

Last week I argued that incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will have a hard time voucherizing the American public education system. Diane Ravitch disagrees, and others can decide who’s more persuasive. But at the end of her piece, she added this:

*I had my own unfortunate brush with Carey in 2011; I didn’t realize he was a key player in the “reform” movement, and I agreed to an interview. He published a mean-spirited screed about me, taking pot shots at my scholarly works and claiming that I changed my philosophy of education because Joel Klein did not give my partner a job. At the time, I was closeted, and Carey managed to “out” me. My partner already had a high-level job at the Board of Education when Klein arrived and was not in need of a job. So long as she worked at the Board, I was constrained from criticizing Klein or Bloomberg, whose policies of disruption did little to improve education. Once she retired, I was free to write and speak my mind. Yes, they helped me to see the deep flaws of corporate reform, of putting non-educators in charge of schools, of intimidating experienced educators, of trying to run schools like a business, of making test scores the basis for all decisions, but not for the reason Carey and Klein asserted.

These are falsehoods. Ravitch is lying.

She’s right in one respect: I did write a lengthy profile of her for The New Republic in 2011. It was critical in many ways, and I wouldn’t expect her to take it otherwise.  

I can’t speak to Ravitch’s state of mind in 2011, and I have never thought of myself as, or been described as, a “key player” in the education reform movement. But as Ravitch notes earlier in the same blog post, I had worked at reform-oriented organizations like the Education Trust and Education Sector for nearly a decade before the profile. She and I had met in person at least once, at a private Fordham Institute event, where we ended up sitting next to each other at lunch (I expressed my admiration for her magnum opus, Left Back). We had both participated in a four-person online symposium on school reform a year earlier, in March 2010, during which I was critical of her recent book. And once I began reporting the profile, she proactively reached out to me and offered to meet for an interview. We had a very cordial, on-the-record conversation at a restaurant near her home in Brooklyn Heights.

To say that I “managed to “out” ” her in the profile is a serious accusation. It is false. I take personal privacy very seriously, and there is a long and ignoble history of threatening and persecuting LGBT people with public revelations about their lives.

But in 2011, Ravitch’s relationship with her partner was publicly understood in the way that anyone’s relationship with their spouse or significant other is understood. It wasn’t a secret, and, for reasons I’ll explain below, it was mentioned by literally every person I interviewed, including a number of people that chose not to speak on the record because they counted her as a close long-time friend.

The relationship was, moreover, already a matter of public record. My profile was published in November 2011. Four months earlier, in July 2011, the Washington City Paper published a thoughtful and nuanced profile of Ravitch, that noted “Her longtime companion is Mary Butz, a former New York City public school principal who ran a progressive principal-training program that was shut down by former schools chancellor [Joel] Klein in 2005.” Ravitch’s Wikipedia page also included this information in the summer of 2011. In the acknowledgements to her 2010 best-seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she writes that “my deepest gratitude goes to my friend, colleague, and partner, Mary, who encouraged me as I wrote this book.” A flattering 2012 profile of Ravitch in the New Yorker, for which she was a full participant in the reporting, includes additional, detailed information about their relationship.

Of course, none of these facts are reason enough to mention her partner by name. She was included in my profile because of an incident that Ravitch alludes to her in recent blog post and I described as follows:

DIANE AND RICHARD Ravitch divorced in 1986. She moved to Brooklyn Heights, where she still lives with her longtime partner, Mary Butz, who worked for many years as a school principal.
In 2000, Ravitch published a New York Times op-ed blasting the city’s plans to require hundreds of thousands of students to attend summer school. The then-head of the school system, Harold Levy, called to inform her the district was far more prepared than she’d described. “No one told me that!” she replied. They became friends, and Levy speaks of her with great warmth and respect. When he created a program to train new principals, Ravitch suggested he tap Butz to lead it. Butz got the job.
When Klein became schools chancellor, he created a new principal-training program. This time, Butz wasn’t hired, and she left New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) a year later. In the course of reporting this story, I was given e-mails between Ravitch and Klein that had been obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They helped to shed light on what may have happened behind the scenes.
In November 2002, The New York Times published an editorial calling for Klein to “give potential principals access to a sophisticated training program.” Ravitch sent a testy e-mail to the Times editorial-page editor, Gail Collins, noting that Butz was already running a principal training program: “Those who have struggled to make it happen deserve recognition for their successes; today’s editorial suggests that they don’t even exist.” Ravitch then forwarded the e-mail, which did not identify Butz as anything other than a department employee, to Klein. “Perhaps in the future,” she wrote, “if you talked about what the Department is presently doing to help inexperienced principals, more people in the press would know about it.”
Over the next two months, Klein and Ravitch exchanged a series of e-mails. Their contents were almost entirely redacted by the department when it responded to the FOIA request. But several people who worked for the department at the time, including one who saw the e-mails personally, say Ravitch aggressively lobbied Klein to hire Butz to lead the new program—and reacted with anger when he didn’t.
Ravitch disputes this, saying she did not ask for Butz to be put in charge of the program, was not angry, and only urged Klein to call upon Butz for her deep knowledge and experience. She also told me she was glad Butz was no longer at the New York City DOE, because it had constrained her own ability to criticize the department.
During the course of 2003, Ravitch met with former high-ranking Klein employees who were critical of his administration.And she began to question the Bloomberg administration’s efforts at reform, at first in private, and then very publicly. In early 2004, she went on the offensive. “Joel Klein is not an educator,” she told The New York Times. She also co-authored an anti-Klein op-ed in the Times with UFT President Randi Weingarten, accusing the Bloomberg administration of running schools as if it were “selling toothpaste.” Her alliance with Weingarten was significant: While Ravitch had never indulged in the strident anti-labor rhetoric common among educational conservatives, her reform views were far from the union agenda.
Ravitch clearly got under Klein’s skin. Over dinner with New York magazine’s John Heilemann, Klein said, “You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she’s never educated anyone.” Ravitch fired off an e-mail to Klein: “Your nasty comment about me in the new article in New York magazine was unwarranted. I have never attacked you personally as you now attack me. Shame on you.” Klein apologized, but Ravitch still fumed. One longtime reformer says that, at national policy meetings, Ravitch would “obsessively” turn every conversation toward her grievances with Klein.

I had concerns about this section, not because it wasn’t true, but because I was worried--correctly, as it turned out--that it would overshadow the larger thesis of the piece. I don’t believe that Diane Ravitch reversed course on every single idea and policy position she had advocated for in 30 years as a conservative intellectual and popular historian simply because of an argument with Joel Klein about her partner’s job. I think it would have happened anyway, because Ravitch is ultimately driven by her identity as a writer and an iconoclast and is insufficiently moored to a coherent philosophy of education--to the point that she has lately turned against the idea that has, more than any other, animated most of her career: the importance of common educational standards.

But the fact was that nearly everyone I spoke to with first-hand knowledge of the situation mentioned the dispute with Klein as a turning point. There was no way to honestly or accurately tell the story without it.

In reporting the story, I had to rely on the testimony of people who had read the redacted emails. Ravitch told me she didn’t have them any longer, and when I asked Klein to share them, he declined.

But three year later, Klein published his own book, in which he discusses the matter at length, and quotes extensively from the redacted emails. Here are the relevant passages:

Ravitch emailed me a copy of her letter to Gail Collins, emphasizing that what Butz was doing had already been recognized as “a national model,” and telling me that “if you talked about what the department is presently doing to help inexperienced principals, more people in the press would know about it.” Two weeks later, Ravitch emailed again, saying “My pal Mary Butz is trying to figure whether you or Diana Lam want her to stay on or not.” She asked, “Does she figure in your plans?...If not, please give her a chance to plan accordingly.”


After Butz was told that she wouldn’t be leading the new academy, Ravitch wrote me an e-mail saying, “I was shocked to hear that Mary Butz was told to leave. If you don’t have room on your team for a person as knowledgeable, as committed, as experienced and as energetic as she, I despair for your initiatives.” She also suggested that we might lose a $3.4 million federal grant that she had previously helped Butz to secure, telling me that “[s]ince the award was premised on her program, the feds might not pay out the money for an entirely different program that was not part of the original proposal.”

Diane Ravitch is entitled to her opinion about the future of American higher education. But it’s a shame that an education historian is so indifferent to the facts about the past.