Obama’s Education Policy: Picking Up Where George Bush Left Off

It has been clear for some time now that President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, have picked up where George Bush left off in the assault on public education. In fairness, it can’t be said that Obama wasn’t open about his views during the 2008 election campaign when he came out wholeheartedly for merit pay for teachers and charter schools. Even so the extent to which his administration has pushed the corporate education reform agenda has been breathtaking.

In particular the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) fund which was part of the 2009 stimulus package has been used as a carrot to force cash strapped states to go ever further down the road of “education reform”. States vied with each other for a share of the fund, submitting applications in which they showed how they were being “innovative” and following the suggestions of the federal Department of Education. Different elements of “reform” were awarded points. Out of a total of 500 possible points, the single biggest chunk, 138, was awarded to states for adopting merit pay and measures that would weaken teacher tenure, i.e. the right to due process before being fired. This clearly shows the anti-teacher union agenda behind RTTT. Forty seven points were allocated based on the quality of a state’s “data system” for tracking and using high stakes test scores. This reflects the fact that high stakes testing and the “data” it produces is really the engine driving all other aspects of education reform.

Two elements of “innovation” became the particular focus of corporate media hysteria: removing state caps on the number of charter schools allowed and tying teacher evaluation to test data. Part of what has made the debate about RTTT even more frenzied is the drying up of stimulus money which undoubtedly prevented more widespread teacher layoffs and cutbacks in 2009. Local teacher unions that hesitated to support measures that not only undermined their collective strength but clearly undermined public education were described as standing in the way of getting desperately needed funds for the classroom. In fact RTTT funds are not supposed to be used for closing budget gaps but rather for more “innovation” like building ever more massive and sophisticated data systems.

But what is truly amazing is that the total amount of money which was used to leverage all this change was only $3.4 billion. This represents less than one percent of all federal, state and local education spending. Fully 40 states participated in the first round of RTTT and while some of these dropped out of the second round, Obama and his aides were described as being so “delighted by the response…that he will seek to extend the competition to a third round next year.” (New York Times, 1/19/10) They should be delighted. State after state adopted various items on the Department of Education wish list. By turning catastrophe (in this case fiscal catastrophe) into opportunity, the RTTT “competition” led to the biggest victory for the corporate reformers since the passing of NCLB. It is an example of what the left wing writer Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”.

The Obama administration, however, has no intention of stopping here. RTTT is clearly the model which the president is now using for his proposed overhaul of NCLB. His blueprint claims to remove some of the most onerous aspects of NCLB such as basing evaluation of school performance solely on test scores. In practice of course test scores would remain the key “metric”. The administration argues its approach would reward the top schools, intervene more forcefully in failing schools and leave the bulk of schools in the middle to figure out how to improve themselves with less federal interference.

The really dangerous aspect of the proposal, however, is that it would make the receipt of any federal education money contingent on accepting various “reforms”, i.e. federal education law would now force the completion of the process begun with the “voluntary” RTTT competition. Since the poorest schools are the most dependent on federal money this is a recipe for accelerating the process of using poor cities and communities as guinea pigs for the fast track dismantling of public education.

But what is also very significant is that there is increasing dissent even in quarters which were initially supportive of Obama’s education agenda or at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. This summer six civil rights organizations including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Rainbow PUSH Coalition came out with a statement which was quite critical of Race to the Top and other aspects of the education reform agenda. This reflects the increasing concern and anger among black parents about the chaos which education deform policies have caused in their communities. When combined with the fury among educators who overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 it is clear that a revolt against these anti-working class policies is beginning.