Obama administration continues assault on public education

By Isabelle Belanger
31 March 2011

On March 9, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his prediction that 82 percent of the nation’s public schools will fail the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act’s Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals this year, up from a 37 percent failure rate last year. His projection, based on a worst-case-scenario estimate of student test scores, was issued only a week prior to a speech by President Obama demanding that Congress “fix” NCLB.

NCLB was enacted under the Bush Administration in 2002. It is now up for reauthorization, and Obama is touring the nation in an attempt to gain support for his proposals.

The president has pitched his proposed changes to NCLB as an attempt to address widespread criticism over the law’s overwhelming emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of educational achievement. However, his administration’s “fixes” do not in any way reverse the attack on public education contained in the original bill. Rather, they promote the further privatization of public education and foster the creation of new educational inequalities in America’s schools. In addition, Obama’s reforms to NCLB lay the basis for an intensified assault on educators’ wages, benefits and working conditions.

The changes the Obama Administration proposes for NCLB include the following:

In New Orleans, for example, where the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina was used as an excuse to “charterize” the public school district, the New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) refused to employ experienced educators and instead saved money by hiring low-wage federal interns and newly minted teachers from outside the communities. NSNO schools are notorious for being inadequately staffed to handle students with special needs, behavior problems and other disabilities, and consequently encourage parents to send their children “elsewhere.”

One facet of RTTT is the Investing in Innovation Fund, which provides money for schools to create partnerships with private sector and philanthropic foundations. The result is to give billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad, who support the privatization of the schools, vast influence over public education.

In making the case for these interventions, the Obama administration has celebrated the achievements of so-called “turn around” schools (for example, Miami Central High School, and Graham Road Elementary and Kenmore Middle School, both in Virginia), where such measures have already been implemented. Never once is it mentioned that the most troublesome or “underperforming” students have been “let go” during these transformations, or that the cash infusions received by the schools after implementing one of the four schemes were the deciding factor in improving student performance.

To see the meaning of Obama’s education “reforms” one needs only look at cities like Detroit, New Orleans and New York, which have been used as testing grounds for the White House education agenda. In these areas, residents have witnessed mass closures of public schools, the firing of teachers, the displacement of tens of thousands of students, and a vast expansion of privately run charter schools with undemocratic admissions policies.

What the White House has willfully left unaddressed in its proposed “fixes” to NCLB is the problem of unfunded mandates. The bill requires public schools to meet a vast array of standards and dramatically improve student achievement without providing the money or resources necessary to address these demands.

Likewise, the Obama administration has done nothing to alleviate poverty in the neighborhoods where the nation’s lowest-performing schools inevitably exist. Rather, by failing to provide jobs for the unemployed, refusing to offer genuine relief to millions of families losing their homes, and axing social programs, the White House has only created greater hardships for these communities.

In his March 14 address on NCLB, Obama stated that “the need for swift reform has never been greater,” making clear that his administration plans to move forward with its assault on public education as quickly as possible so that there is no time for mass opposition to build.

The Obama administration’s assault on public education has met no real resistance from the major teachers’ unions—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). In fact, quite the opposite is true. Over the course of the last year in states applying for RTTT funding, unions have agreed to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. Likewise, they have raised little opposition to the lifting of caps on charter schools. In addition, union bureaucrats like AFT head Randi Weingarten have not only agreed to, but celebrated, the “necessity” of doing away with seniority and teacher tenure protections. They absurdly insist that management can be trusted to make dismissal decisions for the “right” reasons.

The role of the teachers’ unions in the present assault on public education was revealed in recent events Wisconsin, during which the labor bureaucracy repeatedly expressed its willingness to push through massive concessions in wages and benefits if the governor would stop trying to force through a law ending collective bargaining rights for public employees. Since Governor Scott Walker refused to acquiesce and pushed through passage of the legislation, the teachers’ unions across Wisconsin have been scrambling to sign contract extensions before the law takes effect that contain huge givebacks in compensation and working conditions but retain the dues checkoff. In recent weeks, the union leadership has instructed its members to abandon their protests and return to work, agreeing to punish workers who attended mass demonstrations during work hours through a combination of wage forfeits and job suspensions.

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