Over the past three months, most media coverage about President Obama and education has focused on the billions set aside for public schools in the stimulus package. This assistance has been a relief to teachers and parents in many communities around the country who were facing draconian cutbacks due to massive shortfalls in state budgets.

At the same time, the negative aspects of Obama’s education policy are becoming clearer. In a major speech in early March, the president came out squarely in favor of linking teacher pay to “performance” based on students’ standardized test scores.

He also called for removing limits states have imposed on how many charter schools they can establish. It is now emerging that in return for receiving the stimulus money governors must sign a number of “assurances” including pledging to build sophisticated data systems that would link teachers to students’ test scores.

Obama is also planning to bring forward a replacement for Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law later this year. It is clear that while some changes will be made, Obama’s plan will stick to the NCLB’s “high-stakes” model in which schools are deemed to “succeed” or “fail” based solely on test scores.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and prominent critic of NCLB, recently stated: “Obama’s fundamental strategy is the same as George Bush’s: standardized tests, numbers-crunching; it’s the NCLB with lots of money attached.”

In reality, no one should be surprised since Obama is being entirely consistent with what he said as a candidate. Furthermore, Obama is hardly the only prominent Democratic supporter of high-stakes testing – Ted Kennedy was a co-sponsor of NCLB.

As socialists, we completely oppose the big business agenda behind NCLB, which aims to partially privatize the public education system and significantly weaken or destroy teachers’ unions.

To see the kind of chaos this agenda has meant in practice, we need look no further than Chicago where Obama’s new education secretary, Arne Duncan, was the Chicago Public Schools’ “CEO” for seven years. He presided over the largest destruction of public schools in that city’s history, closing almost 70 neighborhood schools and replacing them with non-union charter schools.

Recently, a campaign uniting rank-and-file teachers and parents against another proposed 22 school closings succeeded in stopping six of the closings.

Socialists oppose merit pay because it promotes division among education workers, with no tangible benefit to students. Merit pay will be based solely or mainly on test scores, meaning even more “teaching to the test,” thus reducing the quality of public education even further.

It also means the work of teachers in very different situations would be reduced to one highly dubious quantitative measurement. Ultimately, this would be a step towards firing teachers whose students did not perform well enough on tests.

As regards charter schools, we fully understand why many working-class parents want to get their children out of inner-city schools. However, there is very little overall evidence that charter schools have led to real academic gains.

Furthermore, given that charter schools often refuse children with special needs or a record of being in trouble, the remaining public schools will become even more of a dumping ground. Many charter school operators are viciously anti-union and exploit their teachers relentlessly.

What is needed is full funding of public schools and significant class size reductions instead of putting ever larger sums of taxpayer money into private operators’ pockets.

What is the response of the leadership of the two powerful national teachers’ unions to this? Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said she is willing to talk with the administration about “all issues” except school vouchers. This means preparing to make further concessions on merit pay.

She also asserts that Obama, “unlike his predecessor, [is] respectful of teachers and their unions.” That’s not hard since Ron Paige, Bush’s first education secretary, called the NEA, the other big teachers’ union, a “terrorist organization.” But if all that’s being done is to repackage the failed anti-student, anti-teacher polices of the past eight years with a more “respectful” veneer, then we must “respectfully” say no!

The real problem the AFT and NEA leadership face is that they are completely tied to the Democratic Party. Only by breaking with these false “allies” can education workers’ unions begin to wage the type of struggle necessary to defend public education and beat back the neo-liberal agenda.

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