Why Is Diane Ravitch’s Feud with the Department of Education so Bitter?

Obama Education Department veteran Peter Cunningham has publicly ripped into Diane Ravitch. Cunningham blames the bad relationship between Ravitch and the Department on her personal and intellectual style, but Daniel Luzer argued here that the fireworks stem from a deep, substantive policy disagreement about how to improve educational outcomes.

All Administrations have critics, including harsh critics, but they don’t usually let them get under their skin the way Ravitch apparently has. I don’t know the dramatis personae and take no position on the substance of the policy debate at issue. But my knowledge of Washington makes me suspect that at least part of the bad feeling within the Education Department derives from a principle well-articulated by Michael Corleone:

Let me tell you a true Washington story from a prior administration.

A new appointee — let’s call him Assistant Secretary Newguy for privacy’s sake — arrived in Washington intent on making a difference. One of his first meetings was with someone from the prior administration who had held a very similar position (Let’s call him Deputy Assistant Secretary Oldguy). Newguy was excited to meet someone who knew the ropes of his position and the lay of the Washington land. He looked forward to the meeting.

To his surprise, Oldguy did not come in alone. He brought three leading advocates in to berate Newguy for a long-standing policy of the agency Newguy now headed. After the advocates had completed their verbal barrage, Oldguy challenged Newguy “Are you going to fix this problem, or just give us some Washington song-and-dance about why it’s politically impossible?!”.

Stung and flustered, Newguy paused for a moment. He then said to the advocates “Thank you for telling me about this issue. I have never heard of it before and as a new arrival I can’t really tell you why the problem hasn’t been fixed. Fortunately though, we don’t have to rely on me, because Oldguy here had the power to fix it for many years and never did, so he’s the perfect person to help us understand why nothing has been done”.

This story of Oldguy getting vaporized in this fashion was told with delight around the agency over and over because it so perfectly captured how current appointees feel when someone who used to sit in their chair attacks them for doing things they themselves did not do while in office. Whether it is reasonable or not, the most common reaction is to feel betrayed and to seek vengeance. Even if Ravitch is 100 percent correct substantively and makes her public criticisms of Obama education policy in the most civil way possible, some people on the inside are going to go ballistic because she served in the Education Department in a prior administration. Informed criticism over drinks at the Cosmos Club or during a one-on-one meeting at the office are fine with, indeed even welcomed by, current insiders. But once a former insider publicly “takes sides against the family” the Tommy guns come out.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.