Education is a Right
Education is A Right, Not a Dream
On March 10, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a major speech on education before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. During the speech, Obama showed his support for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Obama emphasized that Duncan would be an enforcer of “innovation” through his executive use of monetary “incentives” given to him in the recent stimulus package (ARRA).
Education As Test-Prep for Global Competition
In his speech, Obama indicated the “innovation” he plans to fund. He called for more high-stakes testing along with more federally imposed “national standards,” more corporate-style charter schools, financially rewarding (bribing) teachers to focus on producing high test scores, as well as other changes such as extending the school day and year (a feature of many of the corporate-backed charter schools like KIPP, see article below). These initiatives are taken up under the banner that education be limited to “prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.” Other countries, Obama claims, are “spending less time teaching things that do not matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not.”
Americans are rejecting the notion that they should prosper at the expense of the world’s peoples. And, after eight years of the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public opinion is clearly against sending children to school to prepare for arbitrary tests so as to serve the monopolies in their quest to win “global competition.” Public opinion is also clearly in favor of more art, music, media, physical education, and so on, all which continue to be cut to make space for testing. According to a recent study prepared for the Alliance for Childhood, test preparation now dominates the kindergarten experience. Experience across the country is that far from improving the quality of education for all, the testing and teaching to the test has been used to further limit and undermine education at every level. Youth are not to receive the broad knowledge humanity has achieved and set their sites on contributing to society and building a bright future for themselves. Instead they are to be trained for whatever the corporations need — including military service — to “out compete” their rivals and achieve world domination. Duncan’s role is to enforce this wrecking of education and attack on the conception that government has the social responsibility to guarantee the right to education.
Education, the American Dream, and the Credibility of the U.S.
While many themes are present in the speech, the emphasis given to the American Dream is particularly significant as an effort to restore the credibility of the U.S. as the “land of opportunity.” In fact, Obama began his presentation by chanting “Si se puede,” (yes we can), a popular slogan defending the rights of immigrants in response to on-gong government attacks. Obama’s campaign usurped this slogan as part of the effort to convince Americans fighting for rights that Obama would support their efforts. But Obama did not speak of the duty of government to guarantee rights in his speech, or even that education is a right. He instead spoke to re-invigorate the American Dream, presenting his ascension to power as evidence of the vitality of the Dream. After pointing to current economic crises and presenting some statistics about the failure of the U.S. education system to compete with the rest of the world, He said:
“What is at stake is nothing less than the American Dream. It’s what drew my father and so many of your fathers and mothers to our shores in pursuit of an education. It’s what has led generations of Americans to take on that extra job, to sacrifice the small pleasures, to scrimp and save wherever they can, in hopes of putting away enough, just enough, to give their child the education that they never had. It’s that most American of ideas, that with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station, can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.” Obama is imposing the past, telling Americans, and youth in particular, that their role is to protect “the dream of [America’s] founding for posterity.” “This is a responsibility that’s fallen to our generation,” he said.
Why should the youth of today accept that the best that they can hope to achieve is a “dream” from Obama’s grandfather’s day? Why accept that social progress — and the dreams that go with it — are not attainable? Youth are to deny the reality in front of them, where society’s ability to solve the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, inequality and unjust wars are far beyond that of the “founding fathers” and Obama’s grandfather. Youth are to accept the crimes carried out in the name of “protecting” this American Dream and be imbued with the chauvinism that their role is to “out compete” all other youth worldwide.
Obama’s emphasis on the American Dream is significant in part because Americans and youth especially are rejecting the Dream. This is a period where the current social relations mean the economy cannot even deliver on a dream from generations ago. The trend of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer is more widespread and blatant. Even in 2006, a CNN poll reported “that more than half of those surveyed, 54 percent, considered the American Dream unachievable.” In numerous actions and demonstrations, people are rejecting the old and demanding another world, a new world, consistent with the ability of humanity to raise the level of society and meet the needs of all. And the possibility is more than a dream — it is being made a reality. The fight for this social change is what Obama is striving to block, using the tired and worn “American Dream.”
Indeed, Obama is attempting to go further. After reading his speech, one has the impression that being identified as not believing in the American Dream is somehow anti-American and a threat to national security. “To any student who’s watching,” Obama threatens, “I say this: Don’t even think about dropping out of school. Don’t even think about it.”
Having just rewarded Wall Street failures with trillions of public dollars Obama says, speaking of education: “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high.” This points not simply to Obama’s double standard but to the problem he is trying to solve. How to secure the allegiance of the American people to a system that denies their rights, while simultaneously training them to accept the blame for things they have no control over.
Teachers, Students and Parents Blamed for the Failure of the U.S. System
A major thesis of the speech is that it is low quality education that has made the Dream unattainable for many. Teachers, students and parents are, in turn, blamed for low quality education. “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world,” Obama asserts, ignoring the vast inequalities in school funding across the U.S., “we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us.” Repeating the Bush doctrine that the problem is the attitudes of students, teachers and parents, he says: “It’s time to expect more from our students. It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones.” Students, who inherit this crisis-ridden system, are actually blamed for America’s decline: “America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education,” Obama says. And for parents: “Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night.”
These admonitions reflect a profound detachment from the problems facing the working class and people, ignoring the growing, crushing poverty and economic insecurity, segregation, police brutality, and all the attending social and health problems from violence to asthma to lead poisoning. The long standing system of unequal funding is completely ignored and will actually flourish under Duncan’s corporate charter model. In short, Americans are to ignore their experience of a government that denies rights as a matter of course, demanding that more and more people go without, while working longer and harder if they can find a job. They are to ignore the fact that society has developed to the point where the needs of all can be readily met. Instead of taking rights as a starting point, Obama calls on Americans to “to scrimp and save wherever they can” and ensure children show up to school on time!
The blame placed on teachers, students and parents is to be made acceptable with the detached “positive psychology” of “anything is possible if you try.” The call “yes we can” win rights is mutated by Obama into a demand against rights — a demand to pull oneself up by their bootstraps...or else. Academic failure is rendered as a threat: “dropping out is quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country, and it’s not an option — not anymore.”
Incentivise Excellence: Securing Executive Federal Power Over Education
Given the widespread rejection of the direction Obama and Duncan are pushing education, the new administration has resorted to bribes to push people to do what they would otherwise not do. This is referred to by Obama as “incentivising excellence,” a fanatical pragmatism that says whatever gets test scores up and drop outs down is acceptable, no matter how vile. If daily humiliation and collective punishment of students “works” to “raise achievement” then both are acceptable. If military academies “work” to raise test scores, then fine. If perverting learning by offering money for grades raises test scores, it is acceptable. Use of bribes and threats to force teachers and administrators to accept a federal regime where test scores are everything and education nothing, is also being imposed. Indeed, this is the content of Duncan’s “innovations,” as represented in his actions in Chicago and support for charter schools like KIPP.
Obama’s speech is an effort to justify the violation of rights and brutal attack on the quality of education and its role in ensuring that each generation can stand on the achievements and knowledge of all humanity and contribute to further advancing society. The stimulus funds are designed to block resistance to this direction, by strengthening the power of executive federal bodies over state and local authorities.
Obama presents in his speech a model where federal monies will only be appropriated to those education agencies that toe the line. He says: “Show us how you’ll work to ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten. If you do, we will support you with an Early Learning Challenge Grant...That’s how we will reward quality and incentivize excellence, and make a down payment on the success of the next generation.” Arne Duncan has been given $5 billion to bribe educators into more testing, more corporate charters, and more anti-human teaching methods which can only be understood as methods for socializing the next generation to accept arbitrary executive power against the public interest.
Students, teachers and parents are not accepting this direction and are defending the right to education and demanding their role in decision making about education.
Socializing Youth to Accept Impunity
“From Teach for America to the KIPP charter schools, to instructional innovations at colleges and universities, we have proven strategies ready to go to scale.” — Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, February 9, 2009 speaking before the 91st Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education
The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is, according to its promoters, a “nationwide network of open-enrollment college-preparatory public [charter] schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States.” KIPP has 44 middle schools, two high schools, and one prekindergarten in 19 states and Washington, D.C. The schools and their founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg have been heavily promoted in the monopoly media as the key to “closing the achievement gap.” Particular attention has been given to a book celebrating KIPP by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews. The book is titled after the KIPP program theme: Work Hard, Be Nice.
KIPP began in 1994 when Levin and Feinberg launched a program for fifth graders in a public school in inner-city Houston, Texas. Early on, Doris and Donald Fisher, co-founders of Gap Inc., took the lead in bankrolling efforts to replicate KIPP across the U.S. More than $50 million in private funds have been given to KIPP by known supporters of eliminating the public education system, such as the Broad Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
These monopolies also support KIPP as part of promoting the concept that “innovative entrepreneurs” using publicly funded charter schools, can solve the problems in education today. This concept includes attacks on unions and existing teacher colleges. KIPP is also planning to develop teacher-training facilities to train teachers in the KIPP methods and approach. According to Levin, what is standing in the way are “The cartels that control entry – the unions, the education schools.” President Barack Obama emphasized in his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he will be promoting “innovation and excellence” and that “One of the places where much of that innovation occurs is in our most effective charter schools.” Arne Duncan specifically sites KIPP as one such “proven strategy ready to go to scale.”
Reports of KIPP Abuse and Cheating
In order to attend KIPP, children and their families must first undergo a home visit by school personnel, where the family and student(s) are instructed in what is required by the KIPP program. Students and parents must sign a contract agreeing to KIPP methods and aims, which include humiliation and military-style regimentation to achieve higher test scores. Sara Mosle, an education writer for Slate Magazine, found that “the academic program at KIPP is relentless in its back-to-basics focus: a boot camp that runs nearly 10 hours a day, from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., not including transportation and homework, and half a day every other Saturday...There is a lot of rote learning and test prep,” at KIPP, she said.
According to education researcher Jim Horn, KIPP adopts the motivational methods of psychologist Martin Seligman. Horn notes that Seligman’s methods are also used by CIA interrogators, who use his method of “learned helplessness” to control “terrorists.”
Abuse and violence towards students is a known problem at KIPP schools. As one example, between April and June 2008, parents of children attending KIPP Academy Fresno Charter Middle School (California) filed multiple complaints with the Fresno Unified School District about practices at the school. The District passed the complaints to the KIPP Board to investigate. The Board said it had no authority to demand answers or to make personnel changes — only the national KIPP office could do that — and, therefore, advised the District to take charge of the investigation.
Following an investigation, a 64 page Notice to Cure and Correct report was issued on December 11, 2008 to the general counsel for San Francisco-based KIPP schools. Despite its numerous facts and examples of abuse, no action was taken against the school and it still remains open. No charges were filed against the principal or the school. And while the principal resigned, his name is still listed on the KIPP website, and it is not known if he still remains a KIPP employee. Although released more than three months ago, no major news outlet has carried the story of the Fresno KIPP report detailing abuse and cheating.
According to researcher Jim Horn, “KIPP, Inc.’s home office has attempted to paint itself, alternately, as the victim of ax-grinding parents, disgruntled employees, or the public school district out to shut them down out of jealous revenge for making them look bad. In order to push their self-portrait of system victim, they have recruited an army of supporters [including the media] in and outside Fresno to march, attend meetings, and to make a joyful noise unto the name of KIPP.”
Similar complaints have been made against a KIPP school in Fulton County, Georgia. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, in covering the Fulton KIPP case, does not mention Fresno so as to make the KIPP schools involved appear to be exceptions, rather than the rule.
Below are excerpts from the report, which has pages and pages of examples of violence, humiliation and collective punishment against the youth. The complete report can be downloaded from: http://media.fresnobee.com/smedia/2009/02/20/12/kippreport.source.prod_affiliate.8.pdf
Use of Violence, Humiliation and Collective Punishment Against Students
Witnesses saw Mr. Tschang (the school’s principal) “pick up a student off the ground, hold the student by the neck against a wall, and then drop the student.” When asked about this incident Mr. Tschang stated, “I don’t remember picking up and dropping a student, I do remember shaking a kid.” Witnesses reported Tschang pushed another student’s face against the wall and said, “Put your ugly face against the wall, I don’t want to see your face.” A student at KIPP from 2004 to 2007 stated that in the 04-05 term he saw “Mr. Tschang pick students up and drop them. If a student wasn’t sitting correctly he would pick them up by their shirt, move the chair, and drop them on the floor.”
Students who were late to school “would not be allowed to eat their meals provided by the state.” Student (name deleted) stated that Mr. Tschang told her, “People who are late don’t get to eat.”
It was reported that Mr. Tschang put “the entire 5th grade class into a two stall bathroom and kept them there for 20 minutes. … Mr. Tschang admitted that he did ask students to go into the bathroom and figure out a way to solve the bathroom vandalism issue.”
“A common complaint from students was that teachers were not letting students go the bathroom.” One student reported that “there was a student in Ms. Sosa’s class who urinated in his pants because he was not allowed to use the restroom.” A student who started with the Charter School in 2004 and just graduated in 2008, stated, “They would not let us use the bathroom during classes. Parents heard about this and they had to have a meeting to get them to allow us to go to the bathrooms.”
Another student reported witnessing Mr. Tschang “draw a circle on the ground and force a student to stand in the circle for two hours in the sun during the summertime.”
“Mr. Tschang put a garbage can on a student’s head. Mr. Tschang admitted to putting the garbage can over the student’s head because the student, (name deleted), had been clowning around.” A student said that in December of 2007, Mr. Tschang told him to get on his hands and knees and bark like a dog.
A parent reported that Mr. Tschang took a student’s “glasses away from him because” he “was constantly adjusting his glasses.” The student is totally dependent on his glasses and cannot see without them. “Mr. Tschang admitted to taking (name deleted) glasses away.”
“Several students stated that students are not allowed to talk or socialize at all during school hours.” When asked about this policy, Mr. Tschang stated, “If parents are not happy with the school program, it is a school of choice. They are free (and indeed encouraged) to remove their kids from the school. There are plenty of other public school options for their children.”
A parent “confronted Mr. Tschang about yelling at her daughter who was a student at the school.” She reported that she told Mr. Tschang she did not appreciate Mr. Tschang yelling at her daughter. Mr. Tschang responded, “well next time I won’t yell, I will ask you to leave the school.” Mr. Tschang told the investigator, “my thought on this is if a parent or child is not happy with our disciplinary methods; to get the results we do, discipline and structure is a part of the way we instruct; you can’t have it both ways. This is a school of choice.”
Tschang here is reflecting the standard of the KIPP schools, which is to use humiliation and collective punishment against the youth, to train teachers to impose such actions and train youth to accept them as the norm. The schools have not shown improvement in the quality of knowledge and education of youth, but rather in the test scores. And even these results are being questioned.
Irregularities in Standardized Testing
The report indicated “tests were stored in a location where students and parents had access to the tests.” Two years in a row, the Charter School failed to abide by mandated testing procedures, and the testing coordinator failed to report testing irregularities for the 2005-2006 STAR testing session. “The school adopted a policy that students were required to check their answers again and again after they had finished their tests and were not allowed to do other activities.” The report said, “Teachers recorded students’ answers during testing, reviewed students’ tests, and told students which page to correct.”
In a staff meeting in May of 2006, staff were told by the principal that the legal and ethical guidelines for testing were, in fact, only guidelines that could be ignored.
Suspension and Suspension Procedures
Throughout the school years from 2004 to 2008, the Charter School failed to abide by the California Education Code grounds and procedures for suspension of students. The report found that a student was “left outside without supervision for three hours for a minor infraction that occurred during breakfast.”
Witnesses report “students being forced to stay in small rooms near the school’s office for hours or even entire days without supervision.” Parents “of suspended students were frequently not notified of the suspensions.” Students were routinely sent home for non-serious offenses like talking in class, chewing gum, and bringing a mechanical pencil to school.
Efforts to Cheat the National School Lunch Program
“Vincent Montgomery was the Charter School’s Chief Operating Officer from February 2005 to April of 2006. He told investigators that Mr. Tschang would ask him why the school was losing so much money on the school lunch program and instructed Mr. Montgomery to count students as present whether they were there or not. Mr. Montgomery disagreed because he thought that this practice was illegal.”
Work Hard, Be Nice, Or Else
While several corporate charter school supporters — including Jay Mathews — have attempted to hide these crimes or present them as anomalies, insisting KIPP schools are the “most successful public schools” in the United States, the crimes reported in the Fresno Unified School District report are consistent with what Mathews himself chronicles in his book celebrating KIPP. With apparent approval, Mathews speaks of how KIPP founders Levin and Feinberg loaded children into a windowless U-Haul trailer for a local field “lesson” and how Feinberg smashes a chair through a plate glass window in front of children who do not show the proper contrition for talking during a movie.
KIPP schools are efforts by the ruling circles to socializing the next generation to accept arbitrary executive power against the public interest. They are the model for the elimination of a public school system and even the conception that society has a responsibility to educate the youth so they can be active participants in solving the problems facing society.
Youth across the country are rejecting this role as docile foot soldier for the rich and their crimes and are standing with teachers and parents to demand public education in the public interest and elimination of KIPP and its methods of humiliation and collective punishment.
The Military-Corporate Legacy
As he packs up for Washington, Duncan leaves behind a Windy City legacy that is hardly cause for optimism, emphasizing as it does a business-minded, market-driven model for education. If he is a “reformer,” his style of management is distinctly top-down, corporate, and privatizing. Duncan views teachers as expendable, unions as unnecessary, and students as customers.
Disturbing as well is the prominence of Duncan’s belief in offering a key role in public education to the military. Chicago’s public school (CPS) system is currently the most militarized in the country, boasting five military academies, nearly three dozen smaller Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs within existing high schools, and numerous middle school Junior ROTC programs. More troubling yet, the military academies he’s started are nearly all located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This merging of military training and education naturally raises concerns about whether such academies will be not just education centers, but recruitment centers as well.
Rather than handing Duncan a free pass on his way into office, as lawmakers did during Duncan’s breezy confirmation hearings last week, a closer examination of the Chicago native’s record is in order. Only then can we begin to imagine where public education might be heading under Arne Duncan, and whether his vision represents the kind of “change” that will bring our students meaningfully in line with the rest of the world.
The Militarization of Secondary Education
Today, the flagship projects in CPS’s militarization are its five military academies, affiliated with either the Army, Navy, or Marines. All students — or cadets, as they are known — attending one of these schools are required to enroll as well in the academy’s Junior ROTC program. That means cadets must wear full military uniforms to school everyday, and undergo daily uniform inspections. As part of the academy’s curriculum, they must also take a daily ROTC course focusing on military history, map reading and navigation, drug prevention, and the branches of the Department of Defense.
Cadets can practice marching on an academy’s drill team, learn the proper way to fire a weapon on the rifle team, and choose to attend extracurricular spring or summer military training sessions. At the Phoenix Military Academy, cadets are even organized into an academy battalion, modeled on an Army infantry division battalion, in which upper-class cadets fill the leading roles of commander, executive officer, and sergeant major.
In addition, military personnel from the U.S. armed services teach alongside regular teachers in each academy, and also fill administrative roles such as academy “commandants.” Three of these military academies were created in part with Department of Defense appropriations — funds secured by Illinois lawmakers — and when the proposed Air Force Academy High School opens this fall, CPS will be the only public school system in the country with Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps high school academies.
CPS also boasts almost three dozen smaller Junior ROTC programs within existing high schools that students can opt to join, and over 20 voluntary middle school Junior ROTC programs. All told, between the academies and the voluntary Junior ROTC programs, more than 10,000 students are enrolled in a military education program of some sort in the CPS system. Officials like Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley justify the need for the military academies by claiming they do a superlative job teaching students discipline and providing them with character-building opportunities. “These are positive learning environments,” Duncan said in 2007. “I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”
Without a doubt, teaching students about discipline and leadership is an important aspect of being an educator. But is the full-scale uniformed culture of the military actually necessary to impart these values? A student who learns to play the cello, who studies how to read music, will learn discipline too, without a military-themed learning environment. In addition, encouraging students to be critical thinkers, to question accepted beliefs and norms, remains key to a teacher’s role at any grade level. The military’s culture of uniformity and discipline, important as it may be for an army, hardly aligns with these pedagogical values.
Of no less concern are the types of students Chicago’s military academies are trying to attract. All of CPS’s military academies (except the Rickover Naval Academy) are located in low-income neighborhoods with primarily black and/or Hispanic residents. As a result, student enrollment in the academies consists almost entirely of minorities. Whites, who already represent a mere 9 percentof the students in the Chicago system, make up only 4 percent of the students enrolled in the military academies.
There is obviously a correlation between these low-income, minority communities, the military academies being established in them, and the long-term recruitment needs of the U.S. military. The schools essentially functional as recruiting tools, despite the expectable military disclaimers. The Chicago Tribune typically reported in 1999 that the creation of the system’s first military school in the historically black community of Bronzeville grew, in part, out of “a desire for the military to increase the pool of minority candidates for its academies.” And before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, the armed services chiefs of staff testified that 30-50 percent of all Junior ROTC cadets later enlist in the military. Organizations opposing the military’s growing presence in public schools insist that it’s no mistake the number of military academies in Chicago is on the rise at a time when the U.S. military has had difficulty meeting its recruitment targets while fighting two unpopular wars. It seems clear enough that, when it comes to the militarization of the Chicago school system, whatever Duncan’s goals, the results are likely to be only partly “educational.”
Merging the Market and the Classroom
While discussing his nomination, President-elect Obama praised the fact that Duncan is not “beholden to any one ideology.” A closer examination of his career in education, however, suggests otherwise. As Chicago’s chief executive officer (not to be confused with CPS’s chief education officer), Duncan ran his district in a most businesslike manner. As he put it in a 2003 profile in Catalyst Chicago, an independent magazine that covers education reform, “We’re in the business of education.” And indeed, managing the country’s third-largest school system does require sharp business acumen. But what’s evident from Duncan’s seven years in charge is his belief that the business of education should, first and foremost, embrace the logic of the free market and privatization.
Duncan’s belief in privatizing public education can be most clearly seen in Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 plan, the centerpiece of his time in that city. Designed by corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearney and backed by the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization representing some of the city’s largest businesses, Renaissance 2010 has pushed hard for the closing of underperforming schools — to be replaced by multiple new, smaller, “entrepreneurial” schools. Under the plan, many of the new institutions established have been privatized charter or “contract” schools run by independent nonprofit outfits. They, then, turn out to have the option of contracting school management out to for-profit education management organizations. In addition, Renaissance 2010 charter schools, not being subject to state laws and district initiatives, can — as many have — eliminate the teachers’ union altogether.
Under Duncan’s leadership, CPS and Renaissance 2010 schools have adopted a performance-driven style of governance in which well-run schools and their teachers and administrators are rewarded, and low-performing schools are penalized. As Catalyst Chicago reported, “Star schools and principals have been granted more flexibility and autonomy, and often financial freedom and bonus pay.” Low-performing schools put on probation, on the other hand, “have little say over how they can spend poverty funding, an area otherwise controlled by elected local school councils... [Local school councils] at struggling schools have also lost the right to hire or fire principals — restrictions that have outraged some parent activists.”
Students as well as teachers and principals are experiencing firsthand the impact of Duncan’s belief in competition and incentive-based learning. This fall, the Chicago Public Schools rolled out a Green for Grade$ program in which the district will pay freshmen at 20 selected high schools for good grades — $50 in cash for an A, $35 for a B, and even $20 for a C. Though students not surprisingly say they support the program — what student wouldn’t want to get paid for grades? — critics contend that cash-for-grades incentives, which stir interest in learning for all the wrong reasons, turn being educated into a job.
Duncan’s rhetoric offers a good sense of what his business-minded approach and support for bringing free-market ideologies into public education means. At a May 2008 symposium hosted by the Renaissance Schools Fund, the nonprofit financial arm of Renaissance 2010, entitled “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market of Public Education,” Duncan typically compared his job running a school district to that of a stock portfolio manager. As he explained, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve the portfolio.” He would later add, “We’re trying to blur the lines between the public and the private.”
A Top-Down Leadership Style
Under Duncan, the critical voices of parents, community leaders, students, and teachers regularly fell on deaf ears. As described by University of Illinois at Chicago professor and education activist Pauline Lipman in the journal Educational Policy in 2007, Renaissance 2010 provoked striking resistance within affected communities and neighborhoods. There were heated community hearings and similarly angry testimony at Board of Education meetings, as well as door-to-door organizing, picketing, and even, at one point, a student walkout.
“The opposition,” Lipman wrote, “brought together unions, teachers, students, school reformers, community leaders and organizations, parents in African American South and West Side communities, and some Latino community activists and teachers.” Yet, as she pointed out recently, mounting neighborhood opposition had little effect. “I’m pretty in tune with the grassroots activism in education in Chicago,” she said, “and people are uniformly opposed to these policies, and uniformly feel that they have no voice.”
During Duncan’s tenure, decision-making responsibilities that once belonged to elected officials shifted into the hands of unelected individuals handpicked by the city’s corporate or political elite. For instance, elected local school councils, made up mostly of parents and community leaders, are to be scaled back or eliminated altogether as part of Renaissance 2010. Now, many new schools can simply opt out of such councils.
Then there’s the Renaissance Schools Fund. It oversees the selection and evaluation of new schools and subsequent investment in them. Made up of unelected business leaders, the CEO of the system, and the Chicago Board of Education president, the Fund takes the money it raises and makes schools compete against each other for limited private funding. It has typically been criticized by community leaders and activists for being an opaque, unaccountable body indifferent to the will of Chicago’s citizens.
Andy Kroll is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a student at the University of Michigan. His writing has appeared at the Nation Online, Alternet, CNN, CBS News, CampusProgress.org, and Wiretap Magazine, among other publications. This article was reprinted from tomdispatch.com.
People need to know what is happening in Chicago because it is a preview of the national agenda for urban schools. Since 2004, under Arne Duncan, Chicago has been closing neighborhood schools in African American and Latino working class communities and turning them over to charter schools, selective enrollment schools for new gentrifiers, or to an outside “turnaround specialist.” We have been fighting for quality neighborhood schools in every neighborhood and against these school closings every year.
Duncan, right before he became Secretary of Education, recommended closing or “turning around” 22 schools on a few weeks notice. In the end the Board of Education voted to go ahead and close or “turn-around” 16 neighborhood schools — rocks of stability in their communities — each with a compelling story to tell. We saved 6.
We, a multiracial coalition of grass roots community organizations, teachers, parents, and students are angry but not surprised. They ignored research data (two reports that disputed their reasons for closing the schools), the information from the parents and teachers and students who testified for hours and compiled elaborate piles of documents in their defense. At the Board meeting, Board members admitted they never read the testimony from these hearings — the tears, anger, pleas, careful documentation and reasoned argumentation of hundreds and hundreds of African American and Latino working class parents and children and their teachers and administrators went completely ignored.
This travesty of democracy and disrespect, this crass closing of neighborhood schools for gentrification and charter school give aways, this “cost cutting” on the backs of Black and Brown communities is made possible in part because the mayor, who works in collaboration with the most powerful corporate and financial interests, runs the school system and appoints the Board of Education and CEO of CPS. They are completely unaccountable.
Now Arne Duncan recommends Detroit (and how many other cities?) follow Chicago’s lead with mayoral control.
After candlelight vigils in the cold, many many community meetings, two mass rallies and marches, a tent city sleep over in front of the Board of Education in subfreezing temperatures, and many other kinds of protests, we are tired but unbowed. We are pushing for a retroactive moratorium on school closings in the state legislature right now and regrouping for the next phase. It’s the parents, especially women, and youth and community members who are the heart and soul of this fight. Their courage and determination to fight, to picket and march and speak out day after day, to become media spokespeople overnight, and to rise up as grassroots leaders should inspire us all. It’s a long fight because the stakes are high. People need to know. This is the national education agenda on the horizon. We have to stop it. For good coverage of the recent phase of our struggle see Substance online (http://www.substancenews.net).