Obama Pivots Right on Education With Duncan Nomination to Cabinet


Obama continues to disappoint his progressive backers with Cabinet appointments. 

Education Secretary-nominee Arne Duncan is seen by most as far more interested in privatization of schools than tackling the deep set social and economic context which creates the “achievement gap” in America. 
That context was tackled in the “bolder” approach articulated by the Economic Policy Institute several months ago in a blueprint that brought together a wide range of genuinely progressive thinkers on education policy.  Thankfully they left behind the race based social justice approaches of people like Bill Ayers and Linda Darling-Hammond who argue that apartheid reins in American schools and that slavery reparations should be paid in education.
Unfortunately, Obama refused to “catch the softball” that the center left EPI group threw him.

Obama may think Duncan can sell himself to the left when needed given his Quaker background and his early exposure to the Sue Duncan Children’s Center – a “social justice” oriented after school reading program for a largely black and hispanic student group run since 1960 by Duncan’s mother in Obama’s now infamous south Chicago neighborhood.
Of course it does not hurt to be basketball buddies with one of Obama’s main money men, John Rogers of Ariel Capital. Rogers actually touted Duncan’s relationship to his mom’s Children’s Center. 
Rogers financed one of Duncan’s first jobs out of Harvard before he was hired by the new CEO of the Chicago schools, Paul Vallas. He still serves on the board of directors of Rogers’ Ariel Education Initiative.

Daley and Vallas were engaged in a war at the time with the local control/social justice agenda of Bill Ayers who had just secured $160 million in grants from the Annenberg Foundation to use to attack teachers and principals through Local School Councils. Ayers appointed the young Barack Obama as Chairman of this effort and handed out millions to his buddies in the education environment. Obama fended off opposition from other Annenberg board members like Arnold Weber, former President of Northwestern University, to the Ayers agenda, enabling Ayers to intervene directly in the governance structures of the Chicago schools.

Vallas and Daley, in turn, intervened to try to get Walter Annenberg to redirect the grant to Daley himself but to no avail. Daley went to Springfield and got the law changed to weaken the LSC’s and install Vallas as CEO. Duncan replaced Vallas a few years later.

To provide some perspective from a veteran Chicago education unionist and activist on Duncan may be helpful. Here is how George Schmidt of Substance, an independent education newsletter, reacted to the news:
Arne Duncan’s career has been in crony capitalism, Chicago style. Since he was appointed “CEO” of Chicago’s public schools by Mayor Richard M. Daley in July 2001, he has been responsible for the greatest expansion of patronage hiring (generally, but not exclusively, at the central and “area” offices, but often as well in the schools) on the CPS payroll since the Great Depression (when the school system was controlled by politicians, leading to its near-demise in 1945). Duncan has also presided over more “no bid” contracts from contractors (for everything from buildings and computer hardward and software to charter schools) in the history of the City of Chicago abd its public schools.

Finally, and equally important, Arne Duncan has closed “failing schools” (dubiously defined by low test scores for one or two years, often because of special circumstances at the schools) in Chicago’s African American community.

Since Duncan became CEO, he has eliminated 2,000 black teachers from Chicago’s teaching force, undoing decades of desegregation and affirmative action in the name of “school reform.”

Last year (2007-2008) Duncan began a program he called “Turnaround” (based on the corporate models) that was actually reconstitution. He fired most of the teachers and principals in six public schools (four elementary schools; two high schools). At each of those six schools, the majority of the teachers and principals were black.

Were Arne Duncan living and working in Mississippi in 1952, it would be easy for the USA to see what he is and has been up to in the service of corporate Chicago. Because he plays ball not only with Barack Obama but with Richard M. Daley and corporate Chicago, Chicago’s white blindspot has ignored the fact that Duncan has gotten rid of more African American educators than most Mississippi and other southern governments during those dark days just before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The reason why the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) can promote Duncan’s candidacy is that seven years of turmoil within Chicago’s union has left the union badly split (and weakened). Arne Duncan does not have the support of Chicago’s teachers. He has the support of the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Marilyn Stewart, who is in the midst of a purge of her own staff and elected administration. Stewart, a lame duck officer with no more chance of re-election than George W. Bush, is viewed by the majority of Chicago Teachers Union members as a traitor to her union and the teaching profession.

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Substance


It should be noted that Schmidt’s concerns are generally different than those of the Ayers/Klonsky “social justice/small schools” crowd. Based on his own direct experience of those programs financed by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge led by Ayers and Obama in the mid-1990s Schmidt he called those efforts “teacher bashing.”
In my view the Duncan’s of the world and the Ayers/Klonky types have more in common than is sometimes clear. The “small schools” agenda pushed by the latter, for example, is consonant with the reform/choice agenda of the free market types at Hoover and Heritage. In fact, Heritage lauded the efforts of Obama and Ayers in the late 1980s when they joined forces against the black dominated teachers union to install local control watchdog groups. I discuss this in greater detail in earlier posts on this blog as well as in a longer essay called The Authoritarian Radicals.
Both of these wings have avoided the larger social and political context in order to attack teachers and principals inside what is sometimes called the “black box” of schools themselves. But ignoring the weight of experience (or mal-experience) that kids carry when they show up at school means ignoring the real problems. That was the main message of the Bold Approach of EPI.