The Obama legacy: Destroying public education as we know it
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton eliminated welfare “as we knew it” in 1996. When Barack Obama took office in 2008, few of those who voted for him understood that his Presidency would mark the beginning of the end for public education as well. The Bush II initiative, “No Child Left Behind,” had grown unpopular among left-leaning sectors of the U.S. population by the 2008 elections. Parents, students, and teachers hoped for real investment in a rapidly deteriorating U.S. education system from the newly elected Obama Administration. What they received instead was an intensification of Bush era education policies under the direction of a Black Democrat.
Obama’s first move was the appointment of corporate stooge Arne Duncan to head the Department of Education. Duncan and Obama proceeded to transform the Department of Education into a committee of school privatization. Duncan was already well known in Chicago as an agent of privatization when he served as the CEO of Chicago schools prior to his appointment. In 2010, Duncan claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” For Duncan, the fact that several thousand Black Americans from New Orleans were permanently displaced was a good thing for education because it allowed the Obama Administration to institute the first completely privatized school district in the U.S.
The engine of Obama’s education policy came primarily in the form of the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Initiative. Race to the Top created a pool of four billion U.S. dollars to distribute to state governments willing to privatize their school districts. Districts deemed to have “failed” based on bogus standardized test measurements qualified for funds as long they implemented Race to the Top’s mandated “solutions.” These solutions ranged from “school transformation,” “school turnaround,” “school restart,” to “school closure.” Districts that fired teachers en masse, closed the most schools, and opened the most charters were favored for Race to the Top funds.
High stakes standardized tests were used as a weapon under Race to the Top to justify massive teacher layoffs and school closures in mostly working class Black communities. The Obama Administration introduced the Common Core, a national curriculum devised by Gates Foundation consultants, in 2009. Forty-two states originally adopted the curriculum. Common Core used standardized tests created by Pearson Inc. to determine whether districts received funds from the Race to Top grants. Underfunded, mostly Black and Latino schools were pressured further into teaching to the test. Just as in No Child Left Behind, teacher pay was attached to test scores and the fate of schools to the dictates of a nation-wide corporate testing regime.
The damage from Obama’s rabid privatization of education was felt throughout working class Black communities across the country. In 2011, Detroit bid out 45 of its public schools to charter school operators and closed eight others. In 2013, the Chicago board of education closed 49 public schools. Philadelphia closed 23 public schools in the same year. Cities across the country fired thousands of teachers and closed hundreds of schools to qualify for federal funds. These funds, more often than not, went directly into the hands of operators running for-profit education scams they call “charter schools.”
Obama’s “shock and awe” privatization of education led to the surge in for-profit charter schools. From 2010-2015, charter school enrollment increased by 62 percent across the U.S. despite the fact that charter schools have proven to do no better than public schools in tests scores or anything else. Obama’s education budget in 2010 comprised of $136 million directly reserved for charter schools. Capitalist organs such as the Broad Foundation and Walton Foundation have matched these numbers over the same period with promises to invest hundreds-of-millions of dollars in charters as well.
During his tenure, Obama virtually eliminated public education in service of capitalists such as Eli Broad and Bill Gates. This has come at the severe expense of the Black working class. Charter schools promote segregation and discriminate against ESL (English as a Second Language) and disabled students. The number of Black teachers in cities like Chicago has declined dramatically. The Goldman Sachs funded organization, Teach for America, found fertile ground in Obama’s war on public education to build a vast army of scab labor ready to replace fired public school teachers. Many charter schools have utilized Teach for America members to resist unionization and keep wages low.
Teachers have been blamed by the Obama regime for the problems that exist in the U.S. education system. Anti-teacher films such as Waiting for Superman have saturated the education narrative in the U.S. The privatization of education has gone virtually uncovered or framed as a benevolent colonial mission in the corporate media. However, efforts such as the Chicago Teachers Union strike or the Detroit teachers’ sickout have received broad popular support. The notion that the general public supports the privatization of education has been a big lie promoted by the corporate education reform movement to distract from the real issues of racism, poverty, and austerity that plague public schools today.
Privatization and austerity was the driving force of Obama’s education legacy. In the course of two-terms, Obama has successfully handed over public education to Wall Street and corporate technocrats. He has further militarized schools under the regime of high stakes testing and engineered the mass exodus of Black teachers and students from public education. Education, deemed by many a fundamental human right, has become more so a privilege primarily accessible to the rich than it has ever been. The question now is whether the teachers unions, activists, and organizers can build a movement strong enough to reverse the damage Obama has wrought.
Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area.
—Black Agenda Report, July 12, 2016