by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When president-elect Barack Obama announced Arne Duncan would be Secretary of Education in December 2008, Black Agenda Report called him an “underqualified stooge and privatizer.” The best thing we can say about his successor John King is that he's not underqualified. He is a highly qualified stooge and privatizer
The Obama Education Legacy Part 1 of 3: Obama Appoints Another Privatizing Stooge Secretary of Education
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Back in December 2008, when then President-elect Barack Obama announced Arne Duncan would be his Education Secretary, Black Agenda Report asked “Did Barack Obama Just Appoint an Underqualified Stooge and Privatizer Secretary of Education?”
We interviewed longtime Chicago teacher and union activist George Schmidt, who told us Duncan was an old friend of the president-elect with a spotty resume who'd come to the Chicago Public Schools straight from the mayor's office where he'd been a budget guy, and had never taught a day in his life. Duncan had closed dozens of Chicago schools and replaced them with charters, often in neighborhoods under pressure from gentrifiers, and fired hundreds of qualified, experienced and largely black teachers. And Duncan had stripped hundreds of Chicago's innovative elected local school councils of neighborhood parents and rank and file teachers, whom reform lasws in the 1980s had given veto power over principals contracts (which were limited to 2 years) and Title One funds of their power.
The rest is history. Duncan and Obama soon announced their intention to close and privatize (in their language “turn around”) what they called “5,000 underperforming public schools” across the country, with the “underperformance to be mostly indicated by low scores on standardized tests. Using a pot of almost $4 billion in stimulus money, the Obama administration allowed consultants from pro-privatization foundations like Eli Broad, Gates, Walton Family and others to write the guidelines for its signature education program, Race To The Top.
Under Race To The Top federal education funds were awarded to states and school districts not on the basis of student need, but based upon how many standardized tests were given, how quickly they could tie teachers' salaries and jobs to test scores, how many “failing” schools were identified, closed and re-opened as charters. The nation's corporate media conglomerates played a vital role by popularizing the narrative that public schools were “failing” but not covering the waves of coercive testing, teacher firings, parent protests and school privatizations unfolding across the country.
As we wrote a couple years ago
"The national wave of school closings not national news because our nation's elite, from Wall Street and the hedge fund guys to the chambers of commerce and the business establishment, from corporate media and all the elite politicians of both parties from the president down to local mayors and state legislators are working diligently to privatize public education as quickly as possible. They're not stupid. They've done the polling and the focus groups. They know with dead certainty that the p-word is massively unpopular, and that parents, teachers, students and communities aren't clamoring to hand schools over to greedy profiteers.
"On every level, the advocates of educational privatization strive to avoid using the p-word. They deliberately mislabel charter schools, just as unaccountable as every other private business in the land as “public charter schools,” because after all, they use public money. So do Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, but nobody calls these “public aerospace companies,” “public military contractors,” or “public banks.” For the same reason, corporate media refuse to cover the extent of the school closing epidemic, or local opposition to it, for fear of feeding the development of a popular movement against privatization, and Race To The Top, the Obama administration's signature public education initiative, and the sharp edge of the privatizers, literally driving the wave of school closings, teacher firings, and the adoption of “run-the-school-like-a-business” methods everywhere.
"The privatizers know the clock is ticking. They know that no white Republican or Democrat could have successfully closed thousands of schools, mainly in the inner city and low-income neighborhoods without a tidal wave of noisy opposition. No white Republican or Democrat could have fired or replaced tens of thousands of experienced, mostly black qualified, experienced classroom teachers with younger, whiter, cheaper “graduates” of 5 week “teacher training” programs like Teach For America."
In seven years, President Obama, his Secretary of Education, and their corporate funded allies and charter school sugar daddy contributors built upon the foundation laid by the No Child Left Behind Act, which first gave federal funding to the charter school and educational privatization industries. They transformed the federal Department of Education into a Department of Educational Privatization. Just as federal agencies supposedly regulating airlines, drugs and food are staffed by reps from airlines, from Big Pharma, Monsanto and Big Ag, thousands of staffers at federal and state education departments are now the corporate consultants who wrote the regulations, Teach For America alums, or honchos in the charter school industry and its galaxy of shady partners and contractors. This is the crack in the woodwork from which John King, the new Secretary of Education emerges.
Unlike his underqualified predecessor, John King is highly qualified to nail down the gains of educational privatizers. For the last ten months, King has been Arne Duncan's deputy, and before that he headed the New York State Department of Education. Like Duncan, he's never taught in or administered a public school in his life. King started out as a charter school teacher and administrator, and eventually headed a chain of charter schools with exceptionally onerous disciplinary policies.
As commissioner of NY State Department of Education King was instrumental in forcing Common Core, a standard curriculum developed by non-educators and corporate consultants from the Gates Foundation, the testing industry and others, upon parents and schools while his own children attended a local Montessori school, which of course did not administer standardized testing. In New York King distinguished himself as a thin-skinned, tone-deaf bully, insisting in the face of widespread public opposition that cutting recreation, music, literature and real teaching in favor of Common Core's “teach to the test” and other “run-the-school-like-a-business” practices were good for children and good for education.
There are two pieces of good news here. The first is that the $4 billion in stimulus funds the administration had under Duncan to coerce states and school districts into compliance is gone, and provisions of the successor to No Child Left Behind, which of course will institutionalize as much of the privatization regime as possible, are not yet finalized. The second is that like Arne Duncan, John King is no charmer, no persuader, and no salesman. He's an arrogant autocrat in a highly public, highly visible position, committed to enforcing a set of massively unpopular policies. There's a serious political opportunity here to galvanize and make visible a movement of national resistance to the juggernaut of school privatization. The Obama administration is well aware of this, and is transparently seeking to buy time with empty declarations of intent to reduce emphasis on standardized testing.
Common Core has sparked widespread opposition in constituencies not as thoroughly blinded by the pretty brown faces of the first black president and his family, as African Americans seem to be. By the time John King left New York, almost 20% of parents, one in five were opting out of the standardized tests which are the rigged scales the Obama administration uses to designate schools as “failing.” And there's a national Opt-Out Movement of active parents in all 50 states determined to defend their children, and ultimately the future of education in this country.
President Obama's legitimacy derives largely from the reluctance of black America to criticize his administration on any front whatsoever, a phenomenon we call “the black wall” around this president. Just as local black elite politicians enable gentrifrication and other policies in chicago, New Orleans and elsewhere, the “black wall” around the president has allowed the Obama administration to pursue many policies that white Republicans and Democrats would have been unable to accomplish, from the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership to overseas wars, to letting banksters and Wall Street off the hook for the housing crisis, the decimation of black wealth since 2007, the financial meltdowns of 2007-2009, and much more. For what it's worth the new Secretary of Education is black too, and we can expect our established civil rights organizations and the black political class to gush awhile over that.
But this is a time when black constituencies, black parents across the country should be organizing to opt out of standardized testing as well. It's being done in New York and Seattle and Chicago, but among African Americans, not in many other places. Standardized testing is the sharp edge of educational privatization. John King's job is to fasten in place the Obama legacy on education, a legacy of handing over the educational fates of the nation's children to educational hucksters and profiteers, charter and cyber-charter school operators, testing companies, and others.
Part 2 and 3 of the series will focus on the broken promises of charter schools, on Common Core, and the forces mobilized to organize against it.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be contacted via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.