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 is “school 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.