What Happened to Public Education on Election Night?
Photo Credit: Morgan Lane Photography | Shutterstock.com
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Barack Obama’s K-12 “reform” policies have brought misery to public schools across the country: more standardized testing, faulty evaluations for teachers based on student test scores, more public schools shut down rather than improved, more privately managed and for-profit charter schools soaking up tax dollars but providing little improvement, more money wasted on unproven computer-based instruction, and more opportunities for private foundations to steer public policy. Obama’s agenda has also fortified a crazy-quilt political coalition on education that stretches from centrist ed-reform functionaries to conservatives aiming to undermine unions and privatize public schools to right-wingers seeking tax dollars for religious charters. Mitt Romney’s education program was worse in only one significant way: Romney also supported vouchers that allow parents to take their per-child public-education funding to private schools, including religious schools.
After the November 6 elections, public school supporters speculated about (hoped for) a change in direction in Obama’s second term. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to expect a shift. By the time Obama launched his first presidential campaign in 2007, he had embraced reform-think. His longtime basketball buddy, über-reformer Arne Duncan, undoubtedly influenced his views. The two met on the court more than twenty years ago. Once Duncan took over as CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2001, he became Obama’s sounding board on education policy and escort on school visits. It made perfect sense from Obama’s perspective to appoint Duncan Secretary of Education in 2008. And the administration’s signature education program, Race to the Top, perfectly embodies reform-think: it gives states (all of them resource-starved) a chance to compete for grants only if they pledge to adopt a full reform program.
Rumors that Obama might replace Duncan with ultra-extreme reformer Michelle Rhee caused some panic but needn’t have. Obama and Duncan are a team. Duncan announced his desire to stay for a second term in September 2012. Just ten days after the election, in prepared remarks to the Council of Chief State School Officers, he stated that his department’s second-term job would be “to support the bold and transformational reforms at the state and local level that so many of you have pursued during the last four years.” There was also talk that Obama-Duncan might focus more on preschool and higher education, both less controversial than their K-12 agenda. But even if this does pan out, Race to the Top has given the administration’s suite of ill-conceived reforms a life of its own. As seen on election night and as indicated in Duncan’s speech, the main action has moved to the state and local arenas.
The rescue of public education must come from the grassroots, from a coalition led by parents and teachers. Such a movement has been taking shape gradually and gained visibility during the 2012 election cycle. The number of education-related campaigns has increased as ed reformers try to entrench their policies in law. In addition to the familiar battles over school funding, there are votes on charter schools, the content of teacher contracts, vouchers, and union rights (the four largest unions in the United States represent teachers and other public sector workers). Disregarded in the past, elections for school boards and superintendents have become major battles. This year’s education votes were high-profile within individual states, fiercely fought, and outlandishly expensive; some attracted national attention. Public education supporters won some impressive victories and suffered several bitter disappointments. Here is a review of some pivotal votes, who supported what, and why:
Alabama: Voters defeated Amendment 4 (64.6 to 35.4 percent)*, which would have deleted from the 1901 state constitution language that validated the poll tax and school segregation by race. Counterintuitively, opposition to the amendment came from black leaders, the state teachers union, and Democrats because it left intact this clause: “…nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense….” The language was inserted in 1956 to enable the state to dismantle public education rather than integrate schools. Business groups interested in limiting public expenditure on education supported the amendment. Opponents argued that eliminating the racist language but leaving the no-right-to-public-education clause effectively legitimated the latter, putting public education at risk. The amendment as written, they argued, would change nothing in practice for the black community since federal law prohibits de jure school segregation and poll taxes.