News & Politics

Diane Ravitch Out at Brookings, Romney Advisor to Blame?

Did a Mitt Romney adviser get education expert Diane Ravitch dumped by the Brookings Institution?

Photo Credit: DianeRavitch.com

The Brookings Institution, oftendescribedas a liberal-leaning think tank, has severed its relationship with Diane Ravitch, one of the most important education scholars in the country and an outspoken critic of Mitt Romney's education policy proposals. In fact, Brookings has not been liberal-leaning for a long time, if it ever truly was; rather, it's a voice of the Beltway establishment, and that increasingly means it's right-leaning. But that's a crucial point, since reporters are clearly sometimes checking the "get liberal opinion" box in their research by quoting Brookings experts. The Ravitch affair demonstrates how wrong that is.

Education policy one of the areas in which establishment Democrats have most embraced right-wing positions, but Brookings' director of education policy takes it a step beyond that. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst is an education adviser to Mitt Romney, and Ravitch is wondering if there's a connection between Whitehurst's relationship with Romney and Brookings dumping her.

Ravitch writes that she had been affiliated with Brookings in one way or another since 1993, for the last seven years as an unpaid senior fellow. Two years ago, when her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education was released, she contacted Whitehurst about setting up an event at Brookings to discuss the book. Quite unusually,

...he said that I would have to rent the auditorium and pay a variety of expenses, which would amount to thousands of dollars. I decided not to accept this expensive offer, and I soon received a request from Rick Hess to present my book at the American Enterprise Institute.

The very conservative AEI not only did not charge Ravitch to hold the event, it paid her travel expenses and held a panel discussion. The book became a bestseller, and Ravitch has continued to be a prominent voice in education policy debates. However, she writes, "I was never invited to take part in any panels or public events at Brookings."

Then on June 5 came the email from Russ Whitehurst informing me that I would be terminated as a non-resident senior fellow because I was inactive. Understand that it is impossible to be active at Brookings if you are never invited to participate in any of its forums.

My first thought was that Russ might be responding to my blog lacerating Mitt Romney’s education plan in the New York Review of Books. It went online that very morning, about four hours before I got Russ’s email. Russ is an adviser to the Romney campaign on education issues. Would he react that quickly? Then I remembered that I had written two other pieces critical of Romney on my own blog, the first appearing on May 25.

A Brookings spokesperson claims, in response, that the decision was made before Ravitch's criticisms of Romney, that she was one of three fellows terminated, and that "in each case, the fellows had little contact with the program and were not involved in programmatic activities. Their scholarly views had no bearing in the decision." Pressed on the "little contact and not involved" part by the Wall Street Journal's Christopher Shea, noting that Ravitch says she was not invited to be involved in Brookings activities, the spokesperson continued:

We’re not commenting much beyond the statement.

But I would add that programmatic activities with our nonresident senior fellows typically arise in one of two ways: we invite them to participate in research, events and scholarly pursuits in which they can offer expertise and can contribute in substantive ways, and, secondly, nonresident scholars approach Brookings with their own ideas. If it’s the latter, it’s up to the program or center director to agree to pursue and to identify the necessary funding.

So, Romney adviser Russ Whitehurst runs the education program at Brookings. When Diane Ravitch reached out to him about doing a book event, his way of identifying the necessary funding was to tell her she'd have to pay to do the event. Instead, a conservative think tank did so. Then he didn't invite her to participate in Brookings activities. Then she was terminated for not participating.

It's entirely possible that Brookings is telling the truth and the decision to drop Ravitch had been made a month or more before she began actively criticizing Mitt Romney's education policies. But that doesn't mean that the policy positions that led Whitehurst to join the Romney campaign didn't figure in the decision. It's not like Ravitch's criticism of Romney was the first hint that she and Whitehurst were in disagreement on education policy. While Ravitch was an early proponent of testing and test-based accountability in education, she has since looked at the evidence that the programs she once championed are failing and has changed her mind, becoming an aggressive critic of test-driven education. Whitehurst, on the other hand, has had no such transformation since his days working for George W. Bush. Excluding her so that he could ultimately boot her is just as plausible on the grounds of general policy disagreement as it is over a specific candidate.

Ultimately, the point goes beyond Diane Ravitch and Russ Whitehurst. Brookings is too often used in the media to present a liberal-leaning viewpoint. In fact it's just about always a voice of establishment centrism, but if its deeply conservative education policy director can effectively exclude a top scholar with a longstanding affiliation with Brookings and policy views sharply opposing his own, that's taking a big step still further to the right. If that orientation isn't broadly recognized, then Brookings' reputation itself becomes a force pushing the debate rightward.