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Obama and the Democratic Party’s War on Public Education

For those who might want to think about something other than health care reform for a few moments I would like to sound a warning bell about the Obama administration’s moves toward education "reform" as embodied by our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. And it is fitting as a memorial to Senator Kennedy, who worked hard to improve public education throughout his career.

A not-so-brief background: during the campaign Obama chose Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond as his education advisor. Prof. Darling-Hammond was seen as the best candidate by teachers for the post of Secretary of Education and both national teacher’s unions, the NEA and the AFT, worked overtime to help get Obama elected. Then things turned political and Prof. Darling-Hammond was a victim of a village smear campaign. Gerry Bracey wrote about that here, at the Huffington Post:

So our new Education Secretary became Arne Duncan, Obama’s basketball pal from Chicago who was in charge of the Chicago school "reform" movement. Mr. Duncan, a hero to the right and a question mark to the left, had no education experience. He talks a confusing talk and appears to listen but he seems to be a corporatist who eagerly embraces the corporate "reform" movement. Duncan’s history can be found here:

and here:

Duncan’s main approach, taken directly from the conservative Republican agenda and backed by the DLC, was to close failing neighborhood schools, fire teachers and principals, and encourage the siphoning of public school funds into charter schools that would be free from the constraints of teacher’s union contracts, bureaucratic requirements, and accountability of test-taking. The conservatives were thrilled beyond belief. Problem was, it didn’t work. It doesn’t work. Several studies cited in the above articles show that urban charter schools do no better, in general, and often worse, than public schools when they are actually held to the same accountability in test-taking. Some charter schools do as well as or better than public schools, sometimes because of selective admissions or other requirements.

Senator Kennedy, rest his soul, was duped by GW Bush into cosponsoring an ugly piece of legislation called "No Child Left Behind," a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal support for public schools. Kennedy was promised a huge increase in government spending for the poorest schools (Title I) which serve the poor, minority, urban, and rural children of America.

The idea behind NCLB arose directly out of a report commissioned by Ronald Reagan titled "A Nation At Risk" which you can read about here:

President George H. W. Bush convened a panel, chaired by then-governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, which produced "America 2000," the precursor to NCLB, which was defeated by the Democratic-controlled congress. See here:

In January 2002, NCLB passed congress with great "bipartisan" support. And the lash began to fall on public school children, their teachers, and embattled school districts while the promised extra spending was written out of the budget. Surprise!

Much like the health care reform debate, the education "reform" debate was quickly overtaken by voices from the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and conservative think tanks of that ilk, all of which owed allegiance to the Republican party which has opposed public education from its inception in the US of A because they see it as another entitlement program that smacks of socialist government control.

They have seethed for decades while they watched education spending, which tops most state budgets, spend billions of dollars that they couldn’t get ahold of and make a profit from, at least until NCLB and GW Bush’s Dept. of Education opened the taps to their campaign supporters, especially through the corrupt and failed "Reading First" program. Read about that disaster here:

When the DLC democrats decided to join with the corporate interests in calling for massive education reform, the war to protect public education was lost. Now the radical right wing ideas of charter schools, publicly funding private (usually religious or military) schools, punishing teachers and breaking the unions, siphoning funding away from public schools, and the myth of a public education system in crisis have become conventional wisdom and Obama has embraced it full tilt and Arne Duncan is the general in the war against public education.

Teddy Kennedy learned his lesson. GW Bush screwed him after signing NCLB and dropped the increased funding requirements. You can read his statements about the need to radically reform NCLB, which he co-sponsored, here, at HuffPo:

So now Obama and Duncan have produced their program, called "Race to the Top" which continues the failed and punitive policies of Reagan, both Bushes, the corporatist "reformers" who love getting hold of public education money, and the Clintons. The National Governors Association is producing a draft document of a set of national education standards, with little to no teacher input (just like Poppy Bush’s "America 2000" and The National Reading Panel’s NCLB, "Put Reading First", etc.).

Obama and Duncan are tying state’s reception of "Race to the Top" funds to increasing charter schools, tying teacher pay to test scores, and "reforms" that are very popular with the corporate lobbyists who stand to take the lion’s share of the money for their tests, their programs, their text books, and their training of teachers.

The children who come to school each day hungry, sick, poisoned with lead (with the accompanying learning disabilities), with rotting teeth and poor hearing and eyesight, parents unemployed, perhaps incarcerated, perhaps drug addicted, or with a drinking problem, being raised by elderly grandparents, foster parents, or other relatives, with no safe place to study or sleep WILL achieve high test scores by fiat — because Obama and Duncan say so and they are going to pay nearly $5 billion dollars to make it happen.

Bill Gates and several other foundations (many ultra-conservative) have already spent billions "reforming" education with no better result than the traditional American public schools. There is a wealth of research out there. I suggest you read Gerry Bracey’s columns at the Huffington Post for a better understanding of the politicization of public education and the heinous influence of corporate masters. Bracey is a columnist at The Kappan, an educational researcher, and founder of EDDRA (The Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency). 3264687723376607%3Atlvacw-gkue&cof=FORID%3A11&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=bracey&sa.x=0&sa.y=0&sa=Search

Of course the problems that make learning so difficult for these children will not be addressed by the government because they are politically volatile and risky. It’s much easier to threaten and fire teachers, pay billions to political contributors to write ever more arcane and unproven tests, and generally blame the teachers’ unions than it is to address the lack of opportunity and health care and housing and food and all those other socialist things that have real impact on learning.

No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization. I’ll let parent Anne Foster, of, have the last word here:

As we come to the time that the NCLB law can be revisited and changed to reflect the things we have learned, some questions bear asking. Education Secretary Duncan and Congress, are you listening?

We can and must do better as Americans, as the Democratic party, as progressives, and most of all, as human beings. And we can take a lesson from education "reform" that will help us better understand what is happening right now in health care "reform."

Let’s save public education while reforming health care. What do you say?

UPDATE: I am not opposed to charter schools per se; I am opposed to the current administration using the concept of charter schools to impose harsh penalties on public schools with no input from public school teachers.

The National Governors Association committee on National Standards, linked above, is top-loaded with representatives of corporate organizations and think tanks and they have already produced their first draft without teachers at the table. That is not a good start.

In my state (Florida) there is a history of corruption and non-accountability in the creation and maintenance of charter schools that has made me cautious about the motives of charter school advocates.

I know of a few very good, effective charter schools but I also know of several where the founders embezzled public education funds for their own enrichment, where children suffered from poor management and teaching, and where selective enrollment was used to produce spectacular results to show how "bad" public schools are, even though they aren’t educating the same populations.

Color me skeptical.

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