Obama's Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Among Obama supporters, the gap between popular perceptions of the president's policies and the actual content of those policies is nowhere wider than in public education. While the president pays lip service to the centrality of public education, teachers and parent input, his Race To The Top is paving the road to privatization, closing more public schools and firing more teachers than any president in US history.

Obama's Race To The Top Drives Nationwide Wave of School Closings, Teacher Firings

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

A nationwide epidemic of school closings and teacher firings has been underway for some time. It's concentrated chiefly in poor and minority communities, and the teachers let go are often experienced and committed classroom instructors, and likely to live in and near the communities they serve, and disproportionately black.

It's not an accident, or a reflection of changing demographics, or more educational choices suddenly becoming available to families in those areas. It's not due to greedy unionized teachers or the invisible hand of the marketplace or well-intentioned educational policies somehow gone awry.

The current wave of school closings is latest result of bipartisan educational policies which began with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and have kicked into overdrive under the Obama administration's Race To The Top. In Chicago, the home town of the president and his Secretary of Education, the percentage of black teachers has dropped from 45% in 1995 to 19% today. After winning a couple skirmishes in federal court over discriminatory firings in a few schools, teachers have now filed a citywide class action lawsuit alleging that the city's policy of school “turnarounds” and “transformations” is racially discriminatory because it's carried out mainly in black neighborhoods and the fired teachers are disproportionately black.

How did this happen? Where did those policies come from, and exactly what are they?

Beginning in the 1980s, deep right pockets like the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations spent billions to create and fund fake “grassroots movements.” They churned out academic studies and blizzards of media hype, first for vouchers, later on for charter schools and what’s become a whole panoply of privatization-oriented “education reforms” ranging from teacher merit pay to common core curriculum and more.  

Those billions paid off with the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act which made the right wing corporate agenda of undermining and ultimately privatizing public education national policy.  Though standardized test scores were long known to prove little aside from student family income, they suddenly became the gold standard for judging teacher & school performance.  School districts were required to purchase & give dozens of costly meaningless tests and to publish lists ranking their own schools and teachers as “failing” when test scores were low, which again, was mostly wherever students were poor.

Amid torrents of “blame the teachers” propaganda, so-called “failing schools” were required to hire expensive contractors with cockeyed “run the school like a business” remedies and more crackpot tests. Thus it was that NCLB spawned almost overnight an entire industry of jackleg educational consultants and test suppliers guaranteed a market with dollars diverted from already tight public school budgets. Those industries attracted capital investors, and began doing what every other industry does in the US ---- make big campaign contributions to politicians to get sweeter contracts and more favorable regulation.  When test scores still didn’t rise, NCLB required many schools to close, making openings for chains of charter schools, often highly profitable charter schools, bringing the blessings of “choice” and free market competition to the educational “marketplace.”

It was an unequal sort of “competition” though, because charter schools have always been allowed to pick and choose their students, to turn away those with special needs, and to hire teachers and principals with little or no relevant training.

Results in the classrooms of poor neighborhoods around the country were devastating.  Where in 1987-88 the modal year for teacher experience -- that’s the number of years the largest cohort of teachers had been in the classrooms ---  was ten years, by 2008 the biggest block of teachers were in their very first year, by definition --- the least confident, the least experienced and the least effective.  

This was the state of public education when President Obama walked into the White House door.  What did he do? Did he turn it around? Or did he double down? The answer is that in the spirit of corporate bipartisanship, president Obama sided with the charter school sugar daddies instead of black teachers, black parents and their children.

President Obama appointed Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan Secretary of Education. A champion of privatization, Duncan had closed dozens of Chicago schools, many on short notice, some at the apparent behest of gentrifying real estate developers.  Duncan fired so many veteran black Chicago teachers to , fill their slots with mostly white rookies, that teachers sued him for racial discrimination in federal court and won.  Duncan even introduced military charter schools in Chicago, in one case handing a west side middle school to the US Marine Corps.

No Child Left Behind had been passed by a Democratic congress in the first days of the Bush administration. Opposition to its policies was widespread, and much of that opposition was among Democratic constituencies. So President Obama's signature education policy initiative, would bypass Congress and the opportunity for public debate on the disastrous effects of existing pro-privatization policies.

Secretary Duncan at his side, President Obama introduced Race To The Top, drawn up by the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Eli Broad, Boeing, Walton Family and other foundations.  Under Race To The Top states and school districts are forced to bid against each other for many of the same education dollars they used to receive as a matter of course. The winning districts are those who apply Race To The Top's four official solutions to their so-called “failing schools.”

Race To The Top's four federally mandated “solutions,” which are never spelled out by corporate media news outlets, are “school transformations,” “school turnarounds,” “school restarts,”  and “school closures.”

Race to the Top defines a school transformation,” its first remedy, as firing the principal and up to 50% of teachers, replacing them with temps and newbies, hiring expensive consultants, often the same folks who drafted Race To The Top guidelines or their cronies, to redesign curriculum and personnel policies. “Transformed” schools tie teachers jobs to test scores (that’s what caused the national epidemic of cheating scandals) lengthening school days with no extra pay, cutting wages & benefits and of course lots more costly and useless tests.

Race To The Top calls its second remedy “school turnaround.” Turnarounds are exactly the same as school transformations, with high priced “run the school like a business” consultants, increased reliance on standardized tests, sanctions for teachers and all new hires sourced from Teach For America type agencies, except that transformations fire up to 50% of school staff, but to be called a turnaround schools must fire at least 50% of school staff.

School restarts,” are the third Race To The Top solution. In a “restart” you close the public school and reopen a new school with new staff and the same connected consultants used for transformations and turnarounds, but all under the management of a private corporation. In other words, you close the public school and open a charter school in the same building. Charters of course can use public money to hire even less qualified teachers, pick and choose the students it serves, and often to generate handsome private profits.

Race To The Top's fourth remedy isschool closure.” You fire the staff, padlock the school doors and let families take their chances on the free market, or find another public school if they can.

The states and school districts quickest to carry out the most transformations, turnarounds, restarts and school closings are the ones who get to keep or increase their levels of federal funding. Those who drag their feet lose federal education dollars. That's why it's a race, but not exactly to the top.

Clearly there's no broad support for these insanely destructive educational policies. But since news media never report what Race To The Top's actual requirements are, or even that a nationwide wave of school closings and teacher firings is underway, much of the public, and even many teachers and their unions are unable to make the connection between federal policies and their local school crises. Corporate media point helpfully instead to corrupt local officials, greedy organized teachers insufficient reliance on the invisible hand of the free market. News reports in many areas are full of stories about school districts whose certification is imperiled because of looming loss of federal funds, but the public is offered few clues as to exactly WHY the funds are lacking or WHAT measures the district will have to take to get them restored. The fact is, Race To The Top is consciously designed to punish school districts that try to protect their educational assets, and rewards those who eviscerate and sell them off.

President Obama's Race To The Top then, is the direct cause of our national wave of school closings and mass teacher firings from Philly to Atlanta and Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It was local implementation of Obama's Race To The Top mandates that forced Chicago teachers out on strike last fall, and it's reluctance to carry out these measures that now imperils education funding in cities as large as Las Vegas.

The Chicago teachers class action lawsuit is a good thing. But the courts have been captive to the far right wing for a long time now, and are not likely to issue quick and sweeping rulings that upset things as they are. In the end, the only thing that will begin to save public education, that will halt the wave of school closings and teacher firings is mass mobilization on a scale not seen in fifty years. Right now, that seems almost as unlikely as corporate school reform being reversed or halted by the federal court.

What passes for black leadership these days, the descendants of the old line “civil rights” organizations are firmly on the corporate education reform bandwagon. Bill Gates, for example, delivered the 2011 keynote at the National Urban League's annual meeting. The NAACP and similar outfits are no better, all preferring to do the bidding of their funders and their president, over the interests of ordinary black families and their children. Even teachers unions are handicapped. Unlike the Chicago Teachers Union most haven't spent the last few years forging deep ties with organized forces in their school communities, and lack even a tradition of standing up for their own members they way labor unions ought to.

In human history, the notion that everybody is entitled to a quality public education is still relatively new, and has powerful enemies. President Obama is one of these. It was the insistence of newly freed slaves that led to the first universal public education laws in the South. African American leaders till now have always been stalwart champions of public education. Until we raise up a new crop of leaders and movements not beholden to corporate funding, not disposed to uncritical worship of corporate power wielded by a black face, public education will continue to wither and die.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.


Bingo! Mr. Dixon. H.New Year. &UPDATE 1/11

Sad topic, perfect piece of history/writing/analysis.  I'd like to add a word of translation: "special needs" kids= my younger "peeps" - kids with disabilities.   Disabled kids are rejected by the charter schools.  It's the perversion of destruction of public education, which, as you  point out, is relatively new, as is the idea of unions for teachers. 

I was proudlly in the first teacher strikes in NYC for the right to have collective bargaining and for a decent first contract, the next year.  April 11, 1962,  my photo was on the front page of the NY Daily News (and centerfold of the NY Daily Mirror, now gone), holding my sign,  "Don't Burn Us Again" (I was a social studies teacher at Joan of Arc, JHS118M, age 22, and my name was Sanda Blum then; I was an elected union delegate from my school to the union strike vote assembly, a brand new United Federation of Teachers.  I did not vote  for Al Shanker for union president, by the way, who I disliked after listening to him.  I voted for the guy who was smeared as a "communist" who had been in the forefront of teacher organizing for a long time.)

I was a Feb. 1960 grad of a NYS teachers college and had been told, "Teachers are professionals and don't need unions."  On my first day of teaching, Sept. 1960, I knew that was bullchips.

    Welcome back from vacation, Mr. Dixon and BAR.  I was waiting patiently for a Bruce Dixon education article.  If you notice any increase in readership while you were away, I was posting links to BAR in any relevant article on the Guardian online during the time you all were away (and before). 

Parents, kids and teachers are natural allies and will fight and will keep free public education in neighborhoods alive and improve it.  A whole separate offshoot is Mayor Bloomberg's assault on public education, closing schools and giving away the buildings, whole or in part to privatization.  His last year (finally) as mayor  plans a record number of school destructions, more than any other year since he took office.  What passes for legislators in the NYS capitol in Albany are being pressured to end "mayoral control" of education that began with Bloomberg.  "Mayoral control" is a way to bring the power in education back to pre-1960s....and teachers strikes (as are all public employee strikes) are illegal in NYS since the Taylor Law was passed around 1970 because the strikes were effective. 

UPDATE: Jan.11, 2013 -Right on "cue": I thought I heard something on DemNow headlines this morning, but they're not posted yet online, so I google searched and came up with this story and an interesting website, which mentioned the story - "Garfield teachers refuse to give district-required test".  I found a website with it: www.substancenews.net  which is a Chicago online blog about unions and education.  The Substance News blog said that Linda Shaw had posted the story on The Seattle Times website on a blog and I found it via google search using headline I typed.  Garfield High School (Seattle) teachers voted to not give MAP tests - Measure of Standardized Progress.  Think on it. 

Undisclosed Effects !

You make a good point concerning these private schools not taking on the education of disabled children or providing low cost meals to students from poor families, issues that the so-called Liberal Media has failed to mention in their new role as the government ministry of propaganda. The typical result of privatization by private interests who are only concerned with grabbing the low hanging and very profitable fruit. The same holds true for previous privatization that is also referred to as Deregulation. The deregulation of the airline industry disenfranchised various less profitable markets such as rural areas of this country who were left with a few small local carriers that charged enormous prices. These carriers were given financial incentives by the government to provide local air service in the form of lucrative Air Mail contracts and emergency ambulance services, services subsidized by taxpayers, without any requirement to lower their inflated air fares. The current move to privatize the U.S. Post Office will cause a similar situation with the potential end of mail delivery to rural areas that will likely have to again be subsidized by taxpayers to insure the delivery of important items like private and public billing statements, bank and retirement account statements, and Social Security Checks. Socialism is looking better and better as the Capitalists force us into a system where average citizens will be burdened with all the societal costs while the elite at the top are free to cherry pick profitable ventures that were once provided by our society at minimum cost, excluding any profit motivation, and all costs related to the operation of these private profit driven ventures is to be subsidized by average taxpayers. The most egregious example of this is the privatization of publically funded roadways that are converted to private profit making toll roads where often the public is required to pay all future maintenance costs without any remuneration from the private owners !  


New Year's Resolution: Obama Bots can go to hell

For me and all of us it should be as follows:

While it is necessary to have an intelligentsia like BAR and other progressive publications engage in advocacy and polemics, personally I have written off the current crop of Black folks.  It's painful to say but pragmatic and practical nonetheless.

By example, I was listening to Tom Joyner/Michael Baisden station here in the "D," and Michelle Obama "called in" to recommend a song, (Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable") as a tribute to her hubby.  The Obama's and their White handlers have the American Negro mindset figured out to a "T" and there is nothing any of us can do to stop the onslaught of corporatism due to Negro infatuation and a***kissing of Negro Elites.

These folks can lie in the beds they've made.  Me?  I'm focusing on my own version of capitalism and uplift with those who "get it."  Those who don't, and that includes 95% of Black folks, can be left to their own devices.

A downward spiral is ordained and written in stone.  It is what it is.  And I seek power by my ability to define reality.  My reality, not anyone elses.

I'm going to treat them just like I view RG3.    If RG3 becomes a NFL footnote because of his arrogance in thinking he and only he can "lead the team" one 1 leg or conversely is too stupid to understand that he's disposable and is positioning himself to become a footnote in NFL history, to hell with him.  I won't feel sorry for him if he becomes a "one hit wonder."  Not wishing that upon him mind you.  And to hell with Black folks who don't get it.  I'll send them "love letters" from Latin America exhorting them on when I become an rich expatriate.

I'm not trying to "convert" one damn person to the reality they've wrought.  Let's face it.  The so-called Liberal Movement has engendered it's own issue of "What's the Matter with Kansas," by voting against their self-interests.  Let's call it "What's the Matter with Harlem or East L.A."

I for one ain't playing Dr. Phil no mo in an effort to figure it out and answer that question.  The ignorance and stupidity is larger than me (or you).

As we say in the legal world:  "Govern yourselves accordingly."

P.S..  If Jesse and Al and the NAACP and the Black Caucus can't reach (or choose not to) educate these fools, then who am I???


I recall predicating that the L.A. Lakers wouldn't be about sh**t, guess what?  That's my identical prediction for the Progressive/Liberal Movement.

Plus:  If Shawty Lo can get paid catering to the vilest, most coarse and most detrimental stereotypes of Blacks, what's yall problem?  Shawty makes Stepin Fetchit look like Paul Robeson.

Plus, if Speilberg can win an Oscar for "Lincoln" without any reference to Frederick Douglass, "what's yall problem?"  If Tarrentino can capture yall's attention with some sophomoric interpretation of slavery with oodles of gratuitious violence what's yall problem? I mean after all, the "Brother" mowed down them nasty crackers, didn't he?

If "Zero Dark Thirty" can get Negroes cheering the WOT and killing of Blacks and Browns by a Mulatto President then it's a wrap.  The Oligarchs have won.

Don't yall get it?  N*gg*s are irrelevant, except for solidifying Black stereotypes that White folks love and will carry to their grave embracing.

Go see Ishamel Reed for guidance if you don't understand.


My point is that only 1% of the Black educated class get's this true reality, hence my despair and rationalization for writing off mass action.  The Black elites and wanna be elites won't say squat about privitization of public education or the evisceration of social security and the social safety net.  The Rethugs made Obama do it, don't yall understand???

Don't yall dare criticize the "Black" president carrying with glee the White Man's water.  That be Samuel L. Jackson and Barack Obama, get it?

Treasury Secretary Lew, Student Rights & Privatization

Brilliant points, Mr. D., brilliant and salient points, as usual.

And with President Obama's latest appointment to head the Treasury, he continues on such neocon anti-education and pro-privatization agenda.

Naked Came the Treasury Secretary

Another Epic Fail of Obama’s neocon administration

Years ago, a group of anonymous newsies wrote a book on sex (the equivalent of the present day’s  “50 Shades of Grey” type stuff), called “Naked Came The Stranger” --- several entertainingly erotic stories, the rest your usual “sex as a weapon” or “have sex and suffer the consequences” type drivel.

We see much the same writing with the latest newsy bullcrap on the recent presidential appointment.

Osama’s latest necon/Wall Street stooge appointment, Jacob “Jack” Lew, is being spun by corporate newsies as a “change” or “alteration” from Timmy Geithner, fave of Wall Street and the Rockefeller/Kissinger/Peterson gang.

Bullcrap to the max! ! !

Lew has consistently been a major promoter of shadow banking --- credit derivatives and securitizations:  fantasy finance instruments based upon never-ending layers of debt.

Lew is an inveterate liar, poser and shill; nothing which would or should recommend him for any government position.

A leader in “regulatory capture” --- the modern term for absolute corruption!

From the stock pools of yesteryear, leading up to the Great Crash of 1929, to the dark pools of today, leading to the economic meltdown and the Great Deleveraging (which should last for another 20 years or so, at least), this very day we have both stock pools (proprietary trading and HFT) and dark pools (opaque hedge funds and private equity funds, etc.).

With the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s latest report, the compiled list of derivatives of the banksters as of the end of 2011, we see that 97% of the credit derivatives held by the banks is composed of credit default swaps (“unregulated insurance”), with 40% of that figure in the speculative category (“naked swaps”) --- actually something of a misnomer, since they themselves define which are used for speculation and which aren’t, and since they can all conceivably be used for such, it may very well be that all 97% are, or will eventually be, naked swaps!

Of course, if said credit derivatives were actually valued at mark-to-market --- or street value --- they would be worthless, which was why the accounting rules were allowed to be changed enabling the banksters to declare the value of their “assets” themselves, much the same manner as they now declare the American worker as having no value, hence their justification for offshoring as many jobs as possible, and paying as little in wages as possible, for the foreseeable future.

Were those credit derivatives held by JPMorgan chase valued honestly, tomorrow there would be NO JPMorgan Chase, and Jamie Dimon could move on to his very own reality-comedy show, titled:  “Jamie, Jamie, Jamie!!!”

Sidebar:  In between the Clinton and Obama administrations, during Lew’s stint at NYU “.., Lew aided the university in ending graduate students' collective bargaining rights. The Obama administration has maintained that Lew supports workers' union rights.

“In June 2006, Lew was named chief operating officerof Citigroup's Alternative Investments unit, a proprietary tradinggroup. The unit he oversaw invested in a hedge fund "that bet on the housing market to collapse."

Lew co-chaired the Advisory Board for City Year New York.[22] He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution Hamilton Project Advisory Board, and the National Academy of Social Insurance.”

(FYI:  Hamilton Project is Robert Rubin’s creation to promote the privatization of EVERYTHING!)


UPDATE:DemNow 1/29/2013-Garfield Teachers

Jan. 29, 2013 UPDATE of earlier comment:Teachers at Garfield High, Seattle,still fighting and unanimous in refusing to give the standardized test.  Strong.  I just remembered one example of teacher power that I witnessed, long ago:  I was teaching at JHS118M, junior high school in Man.,NYC and the Bd. of Ed. was calling for students to have drills for what to do in nuclear attack, 1960-1961 school year.  Some of us knew it was absolutely stupid to have the children sit on the floor in the hallways, against the wall, with their hands over their heads in the "event of a nuclear attack"on NYC, and the drills frightened the kids (it was not a fire drill, which we took very seriously)  and we refused to participate and tell the children to do the nuclear drill,  We said, "go ahead and fire us, but we're not going to do it.  To prevent nuclear attack, you have to stop nuclear arms race," etc. The Bd. of Ed. stopped the "nuclear safety" drills.

Others teachers were refusing to do it,too and we didn't know about it.  

Educators vs the Economy

Most of the teacher layoffs in my region are the result of a poor economy meeting contractual requirements for pay. As property tax collections dwindled, so did the amount of money the schools received. Although some school districts made changes to comply with race to the top requirements, most did not. Apparently many districts feel that the taxpayers provide an unlimited supply of money, even in times of recession. The state of education in this country leaves future generations at a major disadvantage as global competition increases the demand for highly skilled and educated workers.