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Paul Horton: Why Obama's Education Policies Will Not Change and Why "Change is Hard"

Guest post by Paul Horton.

Back before the President was elected, he spoke to the 80th annual convention of the AFT. It is useful to compare the President's speech to the AFT in July of 2008 and his state of the union address last week. In his state of the Union speech of 2013, he spoke of states "voluntarily" complying with the DODd's Race to the Top program. He is fond of saying that learning "is more than bubble tests," and that "change is hard."

It is also interesting to note that the President began this year's state of the union speech with a compliment to teachers--an election cycle is approaching--but that he stuck with the "bubble test" line, and, most importantly, with the "change is hard" line.

My guess is that he dropped the "voluntary" line because many teachers, students, and parents don't buy it anymore. Too many folks know too much.

I have just taken a closer look at the history of Illinois compliance. This example might be similar to what happened in many other states. On January 13 and 14 of 2010, Governor Quinn and state Education Superintendent Christopher Koch signed the first round RTTT Illinois Application. Initial endorsements came from the Commercial Club of Chicago's who's who. ("Illinois Race to the Top Application for Initial Funding")

When Tennessee and D.C. won the first round, the pressure was on to beef up endorsements for the 2nd round of grants. ("Illinois Race to the Top Application for Phase Two Application: Appendices") This is where the heavy political muscle was applied. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) put out fact sheets indicating that Illinois' first application lacked broader support from education, business, and political leaders, the state legislature then magically brought a bill to the floor that called for a 1% increase in Education funding right at the point when Federal money that had allowed districts to retain thousand of teachers was cut off for the next fiscal year. The money available would be dangled before the states facing huge cuts in the form of a Race to the Top grant competition. According to Illinois AFT President Ed Geppert, "Illinois is on the brink of budget disaster." (Illinois AFT Facebook posting, March 10, 2010)

In response, AFT mobilized its base in rallies to increase state funding. But the state legislature had the NEA and AFT over a barrel. Not surprisingly, as the state Education bill was being negotiated, NEA and AFT both sent in phase two RTTT application endorsement letters. At the same time (February-July), district superintendents and NEA and AFT locals were being pressured to sign Memorandums of Understanding (MOUS) to mandate adherence to the Common Core Curriculum (CCCS), standardized testing based on the CCCS, Value Added Assessments (VAM), greater openness to charter school openings, and more support for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (STEM). This all sounded great to districts and locals facing huge job cuts, they could see the gruesome budget guillotine out the window. (see Illinois application and appendix)

With some resistance from better-funded north shore (Chicago) districts (i.e. Evanston), the state achieved "voluntary" buy-in when districts gave up local control of curriculum and union locals begged for crumbs at the legislative bargaining table.

A question that could be asked is: how could the state legislature be lined up so quickly to apply the pressure on districts and unions? My educated guess is DFER. DFER had access to "insider information" from DOEd. A very porous membrane exists between DOEd, DFER, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pearson Education. DFER made it known to the Illinois House Speaker and Governor that Illinois' application did not look "voluntary" enough. The House Speaker and the Governor's allies in the state legislature came up with the idea of an underfunded Education bill as the leverage needed to create "voluntary" support for RTTT. Dozens of letters of endorsement began arriving to the Governor's office in early May.

"Voluntary" my....foot!

Back to the President's campaign speech in July 2008 to the AFT convention. At this point Bill Gates was playing pretty coy with the President's campaign. Candidate Obama already had strong ties to DFER, having worked with DFER as a state senator and US senator. His close circle of friends, the friends who had provided him with the cash to make it through the primaries, all supported charter schools. John Rogers created created the Ariel Academy and the Ariel Foundation. Marty Nesbitt and Penny Pritzker were breaking into the business of creating charter schools: the Noble Charter chain. Mr. Nesbitt, Diana Mendley Rauner (developer Bruce Rauner's wife), Rahm Emanuel, and Valerie Jarrett had close ties with the Chicago Housing Authority. Mr. Nesbitt was the CHA Board Chairman and worked to implement a Federally subsidized plan (Hope VI) in the Plan for Transformation that demolished public housing units and created public-private partnerships for mixed income development on the west and "mid-south" sides. 

At the same time, the Commercial Club of Chicago hatched the Renaissance 2010 plan that sought to close 60 public schools in these mixed income developments and replace them with a mix of 100 public and private charter schools. The push for the Olympic bid for 2016 was intended to speed up south side gentrification to create a developer's profit bonanza. Brand new "streamlined" charter schools would attract upper middle class buyers into mixed-income neighborhoods. (Pauline Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education, 74-99)

The Olympic bid fell flat on its face, and the neighborhoods were not mixing as rapidly as developers hoped in the wake of the 2008 crash.

But the charter schools are still being built and public schools are still being closed in gentrifying areas. Former public housing residents are pushed out of these mixed income neighborhoods. Because the neighborhood schools lose enrollment, they are closed. Public schools are then replaced by charters that require an extensive application process. This story is the narrative of "reform" in several major cities. (Lipman, 95-99)

Candidate Obama, in his speech video cast to the AFT convention, insisted,

...that we must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind by providing the funding that was promised, giving states the resources that they need, and finally meeting our commitment to special education.

It is time to start treating teachers properly....In May, I visited a school in Colorado where just three years ago, only half the seniors are accepted to college. But thanks to the hard work of caring parents, innovative educators, and some very committed students, all forty-four seniors at this year's class were accepted to more than seventy colleges and universities across the country. And that example trickles down.

What the President did not tell the AFT crowd in 2008 was that the school that he was describing was a charter school that had closed its doors to a large percentage of students who started with the class that the future President was holding up as a model for all educators. He was also very careful not to mention that the school employed non-union teachers and was created by a former Teacher for America teacher--Michael Johnston.

The President knew what he was planning because his closest friends, and most important bundlers: John Rogers (Arne Duncan's best friend), Marty Nesbitt (the President's best friend), and Penny Pritzker (Marty Nesbitt's boss who invested $50 million in his "Parking Spot" start-up), all board members of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (who served on that board with Michelle Obama), were heavily invested in the Noble charter chain. 

For President Obama, education policy will not change because he owes the DFER bundlers, his closest friends, and Bill Gates a huge payback for their investment of time and funds into his campaign.

Our education policy is their education policy. It is a policy for those who own stock in charter chains, Microsoft, Apple, HP, and Pearson Education.

"Change is hard."

What do you think? Should corporations and political friends be allowed to dictate education policy?

  Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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