United States

Obama’s Public Education Policy

By Bruce A. Dixon

Last weekend in Chicago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered the keynote address at Rainbow PUSH’s annual conference and education roundtable. Duncan is the premiere executor of corporate inspired policies that have closed dozens of neighborhood public schools in Chicago without substantially improving educational outcomes and at vast cost to neighborhood stability and the careers of hundreds of good teachers. But are African American organizations standing up for their own interests, for public education? Or are we paralyzed because of the corporate policies issued from the administration of a Black President?

Six months into the Obama administration, its stand on public education could not be clearer. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have bought the entire bipartisan set of anti-democratic and corporate friendly line that “failing” public schools are problems best solved by firing tens-of-thousands of perfectly competent and experienced teachers, and reorganizing them as charter and other institutions in which organized parents and teachers have no say whatsoever. The education policies of America’s First Black President Obama’s education policies are not discernibly different from those of his Republican predecessor.

Despite the unpopularity of school privatizations and the wholesale replacement of public schools with charters, wherever this has been tried, the administration of the First Black President seems able to push the corporate line on privatizing education almost without significant public challenge from large sectors of black and progressive America, including what remains of traditional civil rights-style organizations and teachers unions.

It’s no coincidence that African Americans and black organizations have been the biggest beneficiaries and the most prominent defenders of public education. It was the political power of newly freed slaves, for whom literacy had been a criminal offense, that created the first public schools in the South. When Reconstruction was violently suppressed after the Civil War, hundreds of black schoolhouses along with their white and black teachers were among the prime targets of white mob violence. Even so, the shadow of progress remained in the form of a commitment to public education, even if a separate and unequal one, on the part of state and local governments, which had never been the government’s job before emancipation. This idea, that every child is entitled to a quality, free, education at public expense is a new and revolutionary notion. Like all revolutionary ideas, it has powerful enemies—enemies in corporate America, in corporate funded think tanks and foundations, and enemies in high office.

But those who should be defending public education are unaccountably silent.

The Rainbow PUSH Coalition has been under considerable pressure in Chicago to take definite stands against the neighborhood-destroying drive to privatize education. Rev. Jesse L. Jackson deemed the drive to close and privatize a hundred Chicago pubic schools “a dangerous plan” and demanded a moratorium on it back in March.

But last week Rainbow PUSH held its annual conference in Chicago, at which Arne Duncan was the keynote speaker. We don’t know exactly what Arne said in that keynote, but we are unaware that any challenges to his policies were voiced at that event. If so, a priceless public opportunity to demand a real accounting for these corporate-inspired policies of educational privatization was blown. We don’t know why. We do know that Rainbow PUSH issued a ten point “civil rights agenda for the 21st century” which fails even to mention public education, let alone the Secretary of Education’s threats to withhold education stimulus money from states and school districts nationwide who do not sign on to the Chicago, New York, and New Orleans style policies of mass school closings and firings, and the adoption of private “partners” to remake their schools.

Not to be outdone, Rev. Al Sharpton has taken a half-million-dollar bribe, laundered through friends of the chancellor of New York City’s public schools to become an active advocate of charter schools. Even teachers unions in places like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York have utterly failed to stand up for teachers, for parents or for students.

The pattern is clear. Leading black organizations in cities and states across the country, dependent themselves on funding from some of the same corporate philanthropy that is behind the privatization, are falling silent on the big lies of school privatization and the constellation of small and medium size lies it rests upon. They are failing to point out the argument that school “failure” is fundamentally misdefined as the inability to score on a par with predominantly white schools on standardized tests which themselves have been notoriously biased and have little to do with the quality of education. As Robert Rothstein pointed out in a 2007 American Prospect article, “Leaving No Child Left Behind Behind”

Schools have many goals for students: basic math and reading skills but also critical thinking, citizenship, physical—and emotional—health habits, arts appreciation, self-discipline, responsibility, and conflict resolution. Schools threatened with sanctions for failure in only one goal will inevitably divert attention from others. One NCLB consequence has been less social studies, science, art, music, and physical education—particularly for low-income children, whose math and reading scores are lowest and for whose teachers the consequences of spending time on, say, history, rather than more math drill, are most severe.

When inner city schools are punished for scoring poorly on tests, they are stripped of their music, sports, arts and other elective programs, as if this will somehow make more kids come to school. It doesn’t, and in reality it isn’t intended to.

Improving education is not the goal. Privatization is the goal. The targets of school privatization are not supposedly “underperforming” students and teachers. The target is democracy itself. Private interests are just that—private. Turning public schools over to private interests frustrates even the possibility of democracy. Charter school apologists often claim that greater parental involvement is a hallmark of their model. But to the extent that it is true at all, it’s involvement of a select group of parents, and not open to those of the entire community. Charter schools undermine what is left of community.

Gutstein, Lippman and Rico, in a recent Rethinking Schools article, explain that charter schools are often on different grade levels than the schools they replace, and since they no longer draw from the areas immediately around them, do not serve as anchors of the community in the ways that public schools, in the best of times, do. And they spin out the fundamental conflicts between school privatization, democracy, and community:

In a democratic society, instruments of engagement allow citizen voice in decision-making processes. In Chicago education, that instrument is Local School Councils (LSCs). The most powerful parent, community, and teacher, local school decision-making structures in the country, LSCs’ responsibilities include hiring principals, monitoring budgets, and developing school improvement plans. With support, LSCs have demonstrated that they are effective models of local school decision-making. A 2005 Designs for Change study of 144 of the most successful neighborhood schools in Chicago serving primarily low-income students listed effective LSCs as a key reason for success. Despite this and other evidence documenting LSC effectiveness, CPS, under Duncan, has worked tirelessly to weaken LSCs by whittling away at their authority.

The LSCs came out of the grassroots movement to elect Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983. Parents and community members across the city made alliances and worked with school reformers to fight for local school councils, which the state legislature created when they passed the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act. Chicago’s LSCs are probably the most radical school reform in the country and are the largest body of elected, low-income people of color (especially women) in the United States.

In implementing Renaissance 2010, CPS ignored LSCs in the decision-making process. In many instances, the LSC at a school targeted for closure played a major role in the resistance to the school being closed. Why is CPS working to eliminate LSCs? Consider this: Chicago has almost 7,000 LSC members. If they were organized, they would be a major force in the struggle for equity in education. In fact, CPS has worked extremely hard to underserve LSCs. When LSCs started in 1988, CPS provided all the training to LSC members. However, over the years, literally thousands of LSC members have complained about that training. CPS provides no information on the general history of Chicago school reform, nor specifically how LSCs came into being as we explain above. CPS also does not provide any specific training to students on LSCs (each high school has one student member). In response, a number of community organizations have done their own, independent LSC training for years.

Duncan publicly stated in April 2007 that he wanted to break the “monopoly” of the LSCs, and in October 2007, Board of Education president Rufus Williams, in a speech to the City Club of Chicago—a major grouping of business people—likened LSCs running schools to having a chain of hotels being run by “those who sleep in the hotels.”

School privatization is about robbing parents, teachers and communities of the power to determine their educational destinies.

The general paralysis of progressive movements that has resulted from the election of our First Black President stands squarely in the way of a generalized movement against the Obama administration’s continuation of Bush era policies, as does the reliance of traditional “civil rights” organizations and many black politicians upon corporate handouts. A further obstacle to building local and national movements against educational privatization is the lack of local news and the disappearance of local news-gathering organizations in most cities and towns across the nation. As Dr. Robert McChesney has pointed out, the lack of reporters to tell the story, and news outlets to print or broadcast it has opened the way to a golden age of corruption in which corporate thieves can steal with impunity, and the public is none the wiser. It’s a bad place. But it’s where we are.

Later this year the No Child Left Behind legislation will be up for reauthorization. Will we stand up before then? Only time will tell.

—Black Agenda Report, July 1, 2009