President Obama is trying to rebuild and maintain his image as a reformer-for-the-people politician. This image, however, is waning. The President’s policies were never very impressive; it was his personality, presentation, and style that sold the politics to the American people. The image sold the platform; the platform, of course, only survives when the presentation is crisp, refined, and evasively vague. In the realm of education, Obama managed to dodge many questions, particularly about his support of high-stakes testing, pay-for-performance, and charter schools, reforms typically receiving more support from right-leaning politicians. The teachers’ union, a major supporter of Senator Obama during his Presidential campaign, was forced to back a candidate quietly favoring an agenda they did not agree with; such is the catastrophe of the duopoly and right-leaning politics in America.
As the image vs. reality of the Obama presidency begins to set in, it is become blatantly clear that Obama is yet another pro-corporate President. His refusal to renegotiate NAFTA despite a campaign pledge to reopen talks, caving to the health insurance and big pharma, and continued use of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated the President’s willingness to align with corporate interests to the detriment of the many citizens and the quality of our democracy itself.
You need spinsters, movie stars, and theatrics to sell policies. The charter school movement, backed by hedge fund managers and billionaire funders like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Wal-Mart heirs, provides plenty of PR for their various investments. They’re pushing deregulated charter schools, merit pay, and market-based policy reforms. And they have the personality of one of President Obama’s slickest cabinet appointments.
President Obama’s biggest star may be Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a man cast as a powerful, dominating, all-American hero willing to take on the “Everest of entrenched interests” in education. TIME Magazine profiled Duncan in their most recent issue, highlighting the man’s competitive spirit, refined skills, and ruthless performance on the basketball court. The description of Duncan’s athletic prowess is an apt summary of his philosophy as an education administrator as well. Known as a hammer during his reign as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan consistently performed according to the script laid out by Chicago’s ruling elite and Mayor Richard Daley. The “laser-like focus,” a phrase often used by Duncan, is an indicator of how the man views himself: semi-robotic, scientifically advanced, performing the work of a demigod for the good of others. Armed with a massive PR machine – which often includes nonprofits, the Gates Foundation, and high-money interests – Duncan is the ideal character for delivering the message in education reform. Or, as TIME Magazine anointed him in an April 15th article, the “Apostle of Reform.”
TIME Magazine is owned by the world’s biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner Inc.. Duncan, you see, is the prefect fit for spreading the corporate version of school reform; children, parents, teachers, and entire districts are subjected to the whims of market fundamentalism and the belief that market mechanisms are the most effective tools for social reform; it’s not the voucher attempt at blowing up the entire system, this is a much more subtle and creeping privatization movement. Lost in the rhetoric of free-markets – which erroneously equates equity of access, quality, and opportunity to simply equal access to the market - is any concept of efficacy, sustainability, or humanity in education; the democratic process of schooling and community becomes shaped by the market-based school choice and charter school rationale, further segregating and factionalizing communities along various demographic lines. Most importantly, the corporate reform involves overt and covert attacks on workers’ pension plans, benefits, and the unions (many of whom are women) while further denigrating the quality of education for our children. We’re taught to fear each other, especially those with different pigments or pocketbooks, and to fear our children will be left behind in the global economy. K12 education, my friends, cannot be held accountable for creating jobs for the future any more than it should be held accountable for the collapse of Wall Street. Economic and social reforms – in addition to education reforms - are entirely necessary if we hope for a world with full employment, adequate healthcare for everyone, equity in opportunity in many spheres, and a high-quality lifestyle for every human being. I believe every educator wants this for our children; I believe every adult wants their child to be healthy, receive a high-quality education, and find meaningful work after school. This dream cannot be achieved by altering education alone. But by preying on our fears, the corporate reform movement spurs parents to think solely about their own children, who will be fighting over jobs as corporations outsource positions to lower-paid workers around the globe. Unless, that is, we begin making changes to global agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. This, of course, would anger the very drivers of education reform, the corporate and neoliberal advocates pushing their schooling agenda based around standardization, efficiency, control, and coercion; absent is any concern for the human aspect of schooling or the transformative potential of education.
Public education, in the script read by Duncan, is tasked with rebuilding our shattered economy. Lurking in the future, so the narrative goes, are the economic waking behemoths of India and China; their children are toiling away in factories and schools, quietly building economic powerhouses capable of ending America’s reign over the rest of the world. Finland and South Korea are gaining stream as educational powerhouses, and their capacity for research will thrust their economies far into the future. There is little discussion of the subtleties of these comparisons; Finland, for instance, does not teach reading until children turn seven yet American educators force phonics and basal readers at increasingly younger ages; India suffers from the highest rate of childhood malnutrition in the world; and Asian countries are abandoning standardization, centralization, and testing while the United States ups the doses of these very same tools. The rhetoric about international competition trickles down to our youngest children in the form of developmentally-inappropriate standards, the rationalization of these policies based on economic terms, and the heavy reliance on standardized test scores for American children; in other parts of the world, economic competition provides the rationality for multinational corporations to contract out to factories using child laborers and drives profit-hungry companies to commit egregious environmental pollution, all thanks to WTO and free trade policies. Not all children will win in the market-driven, competitive economy. Most, in fact, suffer under the reign of global capitalist domination.
Duncan is one of the darlings of the reform movement, consistently portrayed by the media as a good-guy hero willing to ruffle feathers in an attempt to improve education. With the backdrop of for-profit health insurance/big pharma companies helping block healthcare reform, the TIME article manages to claim, “Duncan admits he is tackling the Everest of entrenched interests with this particular reform”. Duncan is speaking here, in his notoriously evasive and cloaked manner, about the teachers’ union. The most entrenched interests would certainly include the banking industry, oil corporations, for-profit health companies, and military contractors. Including the union among those interest groups would be an egregious accusation on par with George W. Bush’s former Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s labeling of the NEA as a “terrorist organization.” In both cases, America’s most powerful education official deflects the truth about corporate influences on American politics.
The common narrative of widespread American educational failure is based largely on deceptive statistics and blatant fear mongering by political forces. Economic and political imperatives, particularly with the rise of Soviet power as displayed in the Sputnik launch, Ronald Reagan’s ideology-driven “A Nation At Risk” report, and small government/neoconservative/xenophobic forces over the past 30 years, have called “failure!” after chronically underfunding public schools while piling more and more work on fewer staff members.
But Duncan is all-too-willing to pilot the education ship without calling for additional funding and the social and economic reforms it would take to ensure that each and every child reached the end of high school with a high-quality education. They’d graduate wanting to learn more, either in college or independently; they’d be excited and willing to work if we committed ourselves to providing employment; they’d be prepared to be an engaged citizen in our democracy. It would take social and economic reforms that are antithetical to the corporate vision of education. Sadly, Obama and Duncan have shown themselves to be incapable or unwilling to stand up to corporate influences over the American landscape.
[Also posted at www.OurGlobalEducation.com]