For some reason, when a prominent policy expert completely changes her position on an issue, her views are thought to have extra credibility. So when Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served as an assistant secretary of education during the first Bush administration, reversed herself on school choice and accountability testing and became a champion of teachers’ unions, a large number of people who had previously dismissed her opinions began to hang on her every word. Her willingness to switch sides and her reputation as a historian somehow make her a trusted authority in many people’s minds, and that has given her considerable influence in policy debates.
But Ravitch’s credibility has come into question. On her Education Week blog, Ravitch accused a public official, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist of Rhode Island, of gross misbehavior during a meeting they recently had with Gov. Lincoln Chafee and some aides. She wrote:
Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman. But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, “That isn’t happening here.” She came to talk, not to listen. It became so difficult for me to complete a sentence that at one point, I said, “Hey, guys, you live here all the time, I’m only here for a few hours. Please let me speak.” But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.
The Providence Journal followed up with a story
, and Ravitch pressed her claims further:
“Over the past half-century, I have met with many governors, state superintendents, congressmen, senators, Cabinet members, and every president since Lyndon B. Johnson (I met John F. Kennedy in 1958, when he was senator from Massachusetts),” Ravitch wrote in an e-mail to The Journal Tuesday afternoon. “I have never encountered such behavior.”
These allegations, coming from a prominent expert, are the sort of thing that could cost an education commissioner her job, or at least severely compromise her effectiveness. But fortunately for Gist, there are serious doubts about the accuracy of Ravitch’s account. Gist immediately denied the charges, and it turns out that a documentary filmmaker recorded the exchange. The filmmaker has agreed to release the video if those who were present give their permission. Gist has asked for the release of the video, but Ravitch has so far refused to give her consent.
We have good reason to suspect that the video would contradict Ravitch’s account, and not just because Gist’s willingness to release it was met with Ravitch’s refusal. Other people were present at the meeting. In particular, Governor Chafee, who has never been described as a wild-eyed education reformer, backed Gist’s account of the conversation:
I was very glad that Deborah Gist, our Commissioner of Education, was able to join me and several statewide labor leaders for a private conversation with Diane Ravitch during Ms. Ravitch’s recent visit to Rhode Island. We enjoyed a lively discussion about many aspects of education reform. From my perspective, Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion.
Ravitch’s claim of mistreatment would quickly fade into an unresolvable “they said, she said” if not for the existence of a video of the disputed conversation. Facing increasing pressure to agree to the release of the video, Ravitch’s stance shifted from demanding an apology to offering one:
I reflected on a blog I wrote recently about my visit to Rhode Island. In that blog, I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry.
Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.
While Ravitch deserves credit for apologizing to Gist, the apology does not clarify whether Ravitch’s account was accurate but hurtful or if it was manufactured and hurtful. What is at question is not whether Ravitch is perfect, but whether she is credible. Fabrication of events is a terribly serious charge for a historian to face, one that any honest scholar would rush to dispel.
Ravitch can easily restore her reputation if she consents to the video’s release and it confirms her account of events. If Ravitch continues to block the video’s release, or if the video obviously contradicts her allegations, her status as a credible expert will be greatly diminished.
— Jay P. Greene is the 21st-century professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute located at Southern Methodist University.