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One Year Later: Hope, Collapse, and Resistance

Barack Obama and George BushOne year ago Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama was elected as the United States' 44th President. For those of us with our ears to the ground on education issues - both primary/secondary and higher ed - we hoped for a change, especially because so much of Obama's primary and general election victory was won on the backs of countless students and youth volunteers.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate, is widely regarded as a failure, and has done much to degrade the learning environment for students everywhere. Obama said much to that effect during the campaign, and one of his chief education advisors on his transition team was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and an advocate for actually progressive education reform.

Arne Duncan: Business as Usual

But in the same way he appointed Wall Street suits to regulate their banking friends, Obama picked a corporate education suit to reform schools that were suffering from too much corporatization. When Arne Duncan was tapped for the post of Education Secretary, he was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools - a school district that had, under his close supervision, took the keys to the schoolyard away from teachers and parents and handed them to large corporate-funded non-profits, for-profit firms, and the U.S. military. He took his cues enthusiastically from Chicago's business elite, through their hand-crafted Renaissance 2010 project.

Arne Duncan - Renaissance 2010Duncan's rhetoric is taken wholesale from his Republican predecessors - the emphasis on "accountability", standardized tests, "raising the bar", "competing globally," and general paeans to the magic of the free market. He's even stated that schools should be run more like businesses. This point isn't lost on many - even EdWeek came right out and said that Obama's education policy is "giving George W. Bush a third term."

Since his arrival, Duncan has pushed for the very changes that hobbled education in his old job. He's argued against democracy and for all powers to be vested within a single executive (like his CEO position) in large urban school districts.

"Race to the Top" — If by "Top" You Mean "Bottom"

Obama's signature education initiative in his first year was the several billion dollar "Race to the Top" initiative. The idea is to dangle the carrot of Federal education dollars in front of schools and education officials, and have them compete with each other for them. In an economic and budgetary climate that's depriving tens of billions of dollars from states and school districts nationwide, the "Race to the Top" is essentially forcing them to adopt policies and priorities of Duncan's DoE: among them introducing and expanding charter schools (and removing any caps on charter school numbers), and establishing long-discredited "merit pay" schemes for teachers. Paul Rosenberg over at OpenLeft had a great takedown of these shenanigans, concluding that:

It's really hard to see this as anything other than a Shock Doctrine-style deal, since it's a way to force cash-starved states and schools to change education policy and practice, regardless of what they might normally and democratically choose to do.  And not only that--because the funds are limited, they could make the changes, and still not get a dime for doing so.

Progressive education reform would empower individual schools, teachers, and students to actively shape and determine their lives, and would equalize the enormous funding gap between affluent suburban school districts and working class urban school districts. This latest DoE scheme is just about as close to the opposite as one can get.

Higher Ed - two steps forward, two steps back

Slashed state budgets and withering private endowments have sent a shock through higher education, with tuition increases expected to accelerate even faster than they are now. On the plus side, Obama's stimulus bill provided roughly $30 billion in tax credits and expanded Pell grants to students.

The House of Representatives passed a bill (The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act) that would cut private lenders out of the Federal student loan program, which makes a ton of sense. It would reduce overhead (and profits), and turn those savings (estimated more than $80 billion over 10 years) into more Pell grants to go around. Obama has pledged to sign it, but it still needs to pass the Senate.

During the campaign, all three major Democratic candidates - Clinton, Edwards, and Obama - vowed to vigorously enforce the Solomon Amendment, which allows the President to cut off Federal funds to schools that bar ROTC or recruiters from campus (barred usually on the basis that they violate the school's anti-LGBT discrimination policy). We haven't seen any instance of Obama enforcing it just yet, but anecdotally I've seen the threat of it make things harder for students trying to demilitarize their campuses.

Although it didn't get a lot of play from traditional media outlets, the Pentagon is ramping up its involvement in University research. The new director for the Pentagon's research agency is putting a kinder, gentler face on the military-academic complex, while the DoD's Minerva Initiative and the National Science Foundation are setting up more than a dozen new military and "national security" contracts for social science research.

Resistance

Even before Obama had been sworn in, students were already resisting the corporatization of their schools - and articulating a vision of education beyond anything Democrats or Republicans could ever offer.

New School OccupiedOn December 11, 2008, a large contingent of New School University students in New York City occupied one of their campus buildings, demanding the resignation of their university's embattled President, Executive VP, and Treasurer, along with establishing a democratic election of their replacements, a socially responsible investment committee to oversee the school's endowment, and many other demands. While not all of their demands were met, some of them were (and later in 2009 we'd hear that NSU President Bob Kerrey is indeed planning on stepping down in 2010) - and more importantly, they laid the groundwork for future occupations, including a second New School occupation months later and an occupation at New York University.

In April of this year, one hundred students occupied administration offices at the University of Vermont just days after more than a thousand teachers and students staged a walkout - both actions condemning budget cutbacks and layoffs, especially when senior administrators are paid so much that a mere 5% pay cut for them would cover the salaries of the 27 laid off lecturers. After more than ten hours occupying the building, police dispersed the crowd and arrested 33 students. Thanks to a committed student body and campus union presence, the fight is ongoing, with multiple actions and protests since then.

UC Santa Cruz occupationOf course the most epic mark of resistance this year could be found in California this past fall. The UC system had announced that tuition and fees for in-state students would increase more than 30 percent over the next year, coming on the heels of a previous 9.3 percent hike announced in May. Hundreds of university employees are being laid off with most remaining employees subject to furloughs. On September 24, thousands of faculty, students and staff joined to protest the massive budget cuts to the state's university system -- and to protest the complicity of the university's administrations and the Board of Regents. That week saw actions, protests, and teach-ins on every UC campus. Students at UC Santa Cruz even occupied a university building for the better part of a week. And the actions continue: in October over six hundred California students converged for a conference on the education budget, and left it resolved to plan for a day of action next March - and that same month students at Fresno State held a massive walk-out and sit-in to make demands on their administration.

K-12 students, teachers, and parents are also banding together to take back their schools - from Los Angeles, to New York, to Washington DC, and many smaller, usually quiet communities in between. Independent, student-led groups are often taking the lead, like the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Philedelphia Student Union. Nationally, Students for a Democratic Society, re-established in 2006, has seen more than a hundred chapters spring up in high schools and colleges across the country, all dedicated on the premise that students deserve a free, quality, and democratic education where students and teachers - not administrators and officials - call the shots. Most chapters have held actions or are organizing against tuition hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts, and many are mobilizing for a Nov. 10 national day of action for free and liberating education for all.

There are many, many other examples of ordinary people organizing to take on the foundations of a dysfunctional education system - and that's telling in and of itself. While politicians in state and national capitals continue down the bipartisan road to ruin, folks on the ground in their own communities are working outside the ballot box to rescue themselves and build better schools - and a better world. While it would be nice if they helped, we're going to get there with or without President Obama and Congress.

When it Comes to Education, Democrats Hate Democracy

Late last month, Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out swinging against elected school boards:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.
[...]
He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.

"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"

After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.

"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

Arne Duncan Renaissance 2010In a sense, I can understand his motivation: as head of Chicago Public Schools, he was a direct recipient of abrogated school board power. The democratic, decentralized, and much-lauded Local School Council system in Chicago (which was created in the late 80s through tireless grassroots community organizing against the very bureaucracy Duncan would end up running) was systematically gutted and ignored under his tenure. It also isn't surprising that his main line of attack is that institutions of learning and governance aren't run enough like businesses. Duncan's Renaissance 2010 program was written and handed to him by the big business players in Chicago and elsewhere.

Now the Center for American Progress, through its panoply of blogs, is pushing the idea with some help with Mayor Bloomberg. Both CAP's Wonk Room and Matthew Yglesias blogs talked up the idea that really, having fewer elected officials means more democracy. Tom Vander Ark at the Huffington Post called what little democratic control we have over our schools to be a "strange historical remnant." Yglesias took the idea and ran with it, all the way to its monarchical end:

I think this is part of a larger issue about getting democracy right in the United States. There was an assumption, at one time, that you could make government more democratic and accountable by, in essence, multiplying the number of elected officials.

In retrospect, I think this was based on flawed logic and faulty assumptions that forgot to account for the fact that people have a limited amount of time they’re realistically going to spend monitoring public officials.
[...]
I think part of the answer is that states should probably adopt unicameral legislatures and consider cutting down on the number of independently elected statewide officials. But cutting down on the quantity and influence of hyper-local electeds and putting responsibility in the hands of visible figures like the mayor and city council is crucial.

Apparently Bloomberg did an interview for ThinkProgress, part of which featured him extoling the virtues of dictatorial control over schools, teachers, and students, with the help of bogus, cooked numbers:

My favorite part is near the end, when he says: “...you could literally end democracy as we know it here in this country… without an educated public. And when you have these school boards that are fundamentally controlled by special interests, the truth of the matter is that students come last, if at all.” Fewer elected officials = more democracy! It all makes perfect sense now!

Thankfully, regular readers largely countered and ridiculed such a position:

The flipside of Matt’s point is that when a single local elected executive is responsible for EVERYTHING, it’s pretty hard to hold him or her accountable for any specific thing. If you like what Bloomberg’s doing with, say, public safety and housing but don’t like his education policies, how do you hold him accountable? You can’t cast half a vote. On the other hand, a school board subject to being voted out of office can be held accountable.

And one of the commenters actually mentions what progressive reform of our school systems would look like:

The other kind of reform that is possible is to empower parents and teachers, but in order to do that you don’t need to gather power into the office of the mayor- you need to distribute power into the neighborhoods, families, and classrooms.

Another tip-off is the exaggerated concern about the “special interests”. Matt isn’t talking here about the textbook publishers and computer sellers- a mayor who doesn’t know anything about education isn’t going to tangle with those “experts”. And he isn’t talking about the real estate industry that wants to keep school taxes low- no mayor is going to try to trim the horns of the real estate barons.

No, when Matt is talking about “special interests” he’s referring to teachers and parents. Transfer the powers of the school board to the mayor’s office and those “special interests” will have just as much influence as the rest of us in an election- which is to say, none.

Authoritarian, bureaucratic schools are a bipartisan affair in politics - which means it's going to take a lot more than mere elections to reclaim our country's educational systems.

Obama's Education Policy is "giving George W. Bush a third term"

Obama hearts Bush on Education Policy!I just ran across a great article from Education Week looking at the striking similarities between Obama's Department of Education and George W. Bush's.

The writer also interviews the always-awesome Alfie Kohn, teacher union officials, and some right wing policy people (Bush Administration, AEI, etc.). It's one of the best mainstream analyses of Obama's education priorities that I've seen in awhile.

The money quote is pretty early on in the article:

"He is operating almost in a straight line from President Bush," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, who co-writes a blog for edweek.org. She has criticized core elements of Mr. Obama’s K-12 agenda, such as his enthusiasm for the charter sector and what she worries is an overreliance on standardized testing to judge schools and teachers.

"Obama is, in effect, giving George W. Bush a third term in education," said Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush.

 The article is behind a barrier at edweek, so I've reposted it below the fold:

Militarized Campuses: a Bipartisan Affair

rotcLast week, Barack Obama confirmed what many had hoped was a misstatement made in the primaries. Washington Post:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the occasion to chide Columbia for its lack of on-campus ROTC. "I don't think that's right," Mr. McCain said. "Shouldn't the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer?" Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) readily agreed, calling Columbia's anti-ROTC stance a "mistake." 

Flash back several months:

From last night's Democratic debate, as reported by The Hill:
Obama and Edwards both said that they supported withholding funding from higher education institutions that do not provide ROTC programs to students. Clinton initially said she would enforce laws to stop funding but later said of prominent schools that do not have ROTC programs that "there are ways they can work out fulfilling that obligation."
What they were talking about is the Solomon Amendment — a law passed in 1996 (and upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court) that allows the Secretary of Defense to strip a college or university of all Federal funding if the school bans/prohibits ROTC or any other military recruitment on campus.

If you recall, the LGBT and anti-war communities flipped out at this, and rightfully so.

Having ROTC and military recruiters on campus violates many university non-discrimination regulations. To create sympathy for their argument, the Post casts it in classist terms of elite universities being the only ones without recruiters. But the long shadow of the Pentagon does reach these institutions, in the form of "defense" research into everything from smart bombs to spy satellites to bioweapons. 

And the Post wraps it up with a bit of flag waving:

"Don't ask, don't tell" is a misguided policy. For the time being, though, it is the law of the land, and we see no sign that the Ivies' protest is having any impact on it. Meanwhile, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines defend all Americans, gay or straight.

But it is having an impact, as all boycotts do (to a greater or lesser extent). They're also serving as an example to others. As more and more universities refuse to bow down and subsidize Empire, we'll see reduced capacity for another set of Middle East (or South American) adventures, which is, scarily, still a possibility nomatter who wins in November.

The Dems Get it Wrong on ROTC (w/video)

I expect something like this from the GOP crowd, but from all three top-tier Dems?

From last night's Democratic debate, as reported by The Hill:

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