Obama’s neoliberal agenda for education

WRITING IN March 2008, the editors of a Rethinking Schools book on charter schools held out hope that the end of the Bush administration would mean new possibilities for a progressive education agenda:

This country is on the cusp of a new political dialogue. The conservative stranglehold on political debate is ending, opening up new opportunities for progressives to regain the initiative. How this opening will affect public education in general and charter schools in particular is not yet clear, but it ushers in new possibilities not imaginable a decade ago.1

Two years later, the direction of education policy under the Obama administration is indeed clear. The biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression has called into question whether our public schools will be funded at even the most basic level required for their functioning. Last year, budget cuts cost 40,000 teacher jobs. This year, 66 percent of school districts across the country have cut more jobs, while 83 percent of districts project cuts for the 2010–2011 academic year.2 Kansas City’s school board has voted to shut down twenty-eight of the city’s sixty-one schools. In California, more than 23,000 teachers received pink slips in March, and students hoping to attend college are facing tuition increases of 20 percent at the California State University and 32 percent at the University of California.

These devastating cuts are being applied to a public school system that is already in horrible shape. Many schools are overcrowded and crumbling, lacking essential technology and materials; learning is often dull because teachers are exhausted or focused on preparing for standardized tests; and students rarely get experiences that connect what they are learning to the real world. These abysmal conditions have led to a high school dropout rate of nearly 30 percent nationwide, and more than 50 percent in many major cities.3

Education should be at the center of a national debate on social priorities, led by a president who promised “change.” Instead, the economic crisis is being used by the White House to dramatically accelerate a neoliberal agenda for education, going far beyond what George W. Bush’s administration was able to do with its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy. With Arne Duncan, a political operative with no formal training in the field, as education secretary, the administration has aggressively promoted an education program with three principal elements: using test score data to evaluate teachers, shutting down and “reconstituting” schools deemed to be failing, and expanding privately-run, mostly non-union charter schools. Other elements include the standardization of curriculum and the lengthening of the school day. This agenda is supported by a nearly unified front of the powerful—Wall Street, Democrats and Republicans at all levels, and many non-profit organizations.

Obama recently signaled the lengths to which he’s willing to go to implement this agenda. Speaking before an audience of business executives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on March 1, the president supported a Rhode Island school board’s decision to fire all seventy-four teachers and nineteen other school employees at Central Falls High School. “If a school continues to fail year after year after year and doesn’t show sign of improvements then there has got to be a sense of accountability,” he remarked.4 As the only high school in the poorest community in Rhode Island, Central Falls has been chronically underfunded. Yet it seems that the only people being held accountable are the teachers who have dedicated their lives to working with Central Falls students.5

As a Democrat and the country’s first Black president, Obama has much more leeway to implement a conservative agenda than the Bush administration did, under the guise of promoting equity and civil rights. Though Obama may use different language, his education policies are an intensification of the Bush agenda. Yet many teachers’ union leaders who derided NCLB during the Bush era are now supporting Race to the Top (RTTT). American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, after praising the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its contributions to the AFT, announced that, “With the exception of vouchers, which drain vital resources from public schools, everything is on the table in terms of reform, as long as it is good for kids and fair to teachers.”6

This situation presents education activists with tremendous challenges, but also an opportunity to build a new movement for public education. It raises the question of our country’s priorities, when teachers are being fired while banks receive bailouts and soldiers are mobilized for Afghanistan. It raises the issue of public versus private control of vital community resources. And it has the potential to connect the labor movement in the form of teachers’ unions with a social movement by communities of color struggling for basic rights.

In order to build this kind of movement, our side must have a comprehensive response to the crisis of public education in the United States. We must be able to explain and organize against the neoliberal agenda, while at the same time putting forward our own vision of how to dramatically improve the quality of education that children receive in the richest country in the world. This article attempts to begin this process.

Education shock doctrine 
The Obama administration’s education program is following a neoliberal playbook, using stimulus funding and increased federal monitoring of the education system to coerce states into attacking teachers’ unions and handing over an increasing percentage of schools (and state funding) to privately-run charters.

Emerging as the dominant ideology of rampant free-market capitalism in the 1980s (until the Great Recession brought massive state intervention back in play in order to bail out the financial sector), neoliberalism is a set of economic policies that emphasizes the minimization of state intervention in the economy, privatization of sectors of the economy once thought to be the domain of the public sector, deregulation of markets, slashing government spending, and promoting anti-union “flexible” labor policies making it easier for employers to depress wages and fire workers at will. In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein shows how times of crisis have been used as opportunities to push through these neoliberal policies. Klein emphasizes that neoliberal polices involved not only directly selling off public enterprises to private interests, but also governments taking on an increasingly close partnership with the private sector, which acts as a contractor that receives state funds in exchange for providing services.7

Recently, a comprehensive critique of Bush’s (and now Obama’s) education agenda has come from unexpected quarters. Diane Ravitch was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Bill Clinton. Considered one of the nation’s most serious and credible education scholars, Ravitch was initially an advocate of NCLB, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. But she’s had a radical change of heart, as chronicled in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.8 The book critiques the NCLB mindset, in which schools function as businesses and competition is valued over collaboration. It chronicles how school districts from New York to San Diego are undergoing the “shocks” of heavy-handed market reformers using corporate models to “discipline” their teachers.

Why is the neoliberal model being pursued by such a united front of political and economic elites? Since the Reagan administration issued “A Nation at Risk,” its report on the state of public schooling, government education policy has shifted from an emphasis on equity to strident calls for “excellence.” As part of a backlash against the civil rights movement, the report shifts responsibility for public education’s failures from government to individual schools and teachers.

This approach is especially jarring today, when the Bush and Obama administrations have pumped hundreds of billions in taxpayer money—$70 billion to Goldman Sachs alone—to bail out the banks. And that is not even counting the trillions handed out in low-interest loans—essentially free money—to the banks.

“A Nation at Risk” was also motivated by a fear that a poorly educated workforce would make the U.S. economy less competitive. This was echoed in Obama’s first major speech on education. “In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place,” he remarked. “Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one… It’s time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.”9

The administration may truly believe that increased standards and testing, closing “failing” schools, and making teachers work harder will bring up the skill levels of American children. Some schools may indeed improve scores as they focus on “test prep” at the expense of critical thinking and meaningful curriculum. But for schools in the most oppressed communities, this agenda is so punitive that it is likely to fail even on the narrow terms of test scores. These children are being prepared for occupations where higher skills are not necessary—or for prison.

A major goal of this agenda is to weaken teachers’ unions, by portraying them as bureaucratic, selfish obstacles to quality education. This is part of an overall attack on public-sector unions in this economic crisis. State budget crises are providing the justification to go after public-sector unions in the same way that private-sector unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) were attacked over the past decade. Together, the 1.4 million-member AFT and the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA) represent the biggest single sector of unionized workers in the U.S. today, and therefore a central target of today’s war on labor. The expansion of mostly non-union charter schools provides a powerful weapon.10

Some charter school operators are in it for the easy money—public education is a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But the agenda is much bigger. 

While the evidence shows that increasing standards and testing, closing “failing” schools, replacing them with non-union charter schools, and making teachers work harder won’t actually bring up the skill levels of American children overall, that isn’t really the point. Business leaders are excited about education “reform” in general and charter schools in particular because they help to spot talent and recruit the cream of the working class that can be funneled into higher education and employment as technical personnel, frontline managers, and professionals.

That’s why charter schools have the fulsome backing of foundations run by billionaires like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Los Angeles real estate magnate Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame. In an age of austerity, capital isn’t interested in shouldering the cost of fully funding public education for all. Instead, education is to be divided into distinct tiers, and access to it is to be rationed. Business accounting methods—in this case, test scores—are to be the criteria for making such decisions.

Charter schools and “performance pay” for teachers bring the ideology of competition into education, instead of education being a government-guaranteed right for all. Sometimes, pushing free-market ideology is an explicit part of the plan: the original petition by Green Dot charter schools to take over Los Angeles’ Locke High School required that students in history classes “demonstrate a belief in the values of democracy and capitalism.”11

The attack on public education also fits with the goals of local elites in urban areas, who want to restructure their cities in ways that make them more hospitable to business investment (and consequently displace poor communities of color). For example, consider Chicago’s “Renaissance 2010” plan to “reconstitute” failing schools:

The mayor and Civic Committee are operating from a larger blueprint to make Chicago a “world-class city” of global finance and business services, real estate development, and tourism, and education is part of this plan. Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance.12

In order to achieve this ambitious set of goals, control over the school system must be more centralized. In many cities, the move toward charters has been facilitated by imposing mayoral control over school districts.13 And the Obama administration’s RTTT program signals the federal government’s desire to increasingly dictate educational policy at a national level.

The neoliberal agenda for education can be accelerated now for two reasons—the economic crisis, and a president who is far less likely to face opposition from unions and the left than previous administrations. Arne Duncan is quite open about the fact that he is implementing a “shock doctrine” approach. In an interview on ABC News in January, Duncan said,

I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans and this is a tough thing to say but I’m going to be really honest. The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better. And the progress that it made in four years since the hurricane, is unbelievable.14

The “unbelievable” progress Duncan is referring to is the fact that after the hurricane, all New Orleans schools were closed and the teachers fired. Fifty-seven percent of New Orleans schools have now been reopened as non-union charter schools.15 The fact that half of New Orleans children are no longer in the public schools because they were driven from their homes doesn’t seem to bother Duncan.

Like a nationwide hurricane, the economic crisis has provided the disaster excuse for pushing drastic changes to education policy nationwide. Speaking in San Francisco in May 2009, Arne Duncan said that California is facing a “moment of opportunity and a moment of crisis...Despite how tough things are financially, it’s often at times of crisis we get the reforms we need.”16 States have been plunged into such deep budget problems that they are rapidly revamping their education policies in hopes of attracting tiny portions of federal stimulus money from RTTT.

Arne Duncan: CEO of School Closings 
The strategy of closing or “reconstituting” schools deemed to be failing was pioneered by Arne Duncan in the Renaissance 2010 (Ren 2010) program that he implemented as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Duncan is a non-educator who was brought into the Obama administration on the basis of Ren 2010’s supposedly stellar record for improving CPS.

Initiated by Mayor Richard Daley and the Commercial Club of Chicago, the goal of Ren 2010 was to close sixty “low-performing” public schools and open one hundred new ones as small schools, charters, or “contract” schools by 2010. To date, at least fifty-one neighborhood schools have been closed or consolidated, and eighty-six new ones opened, the vast majority as charter schools.

The closing of neighborhood schools has caused great hardship for students who must relocate, and led to a spike in school violence when students are forced to commute to schools in the territory of rival gangs. The number of students fatally shot on CPS campuses has nearly tripled since 2005.17

Chicago parent Cheryl Johnson spoke at a CPS board meeting about the closure of her child’s school:

Carver High School has been in our community ever since 1974. We should have a right to have our kids go to a school that is in the neighborhood, not to take two buses and to walk to a school that they’ve been fighting in for the last four or five years… Renaissance 2010 is just an avenue for our kids to be killed on a regular basis.18

As Jitu Brown, Rico Gutstein, and Pauline Lipman explained in Rethinking Schools, “For affected communities who have longed for change, Renaissance 2010 has been traumatic, largely ineffective, and destabilizing to communities owed a significant ‘education debt’ (to quote Gloria Ladson-Billings) due to decades of being underserved.”19

Renaissance 2010 has not succeeded in improving test scores. When Obama appointed Duncan in December 2008, he said standardized test scores had risen in Chicago’s elementary schools by 29 percentage points during Duncan’s seven years as superintendent. But according to one research group, the real improvement was only about 8 percentage points, trailing behind six other major cities. Duncan’s closure of low-performing schools didn’t improve achievement on tests. Moreover, according to a study by the Commercial Club of Chicago (a sponsor of Ren 2010), under Duncan’s watch, gains on state test scores were inflated when Illinois relaxed passing standards.20

The problems of inner-city schools are a result of poverty, lack of funding and resources, and underpaid teachers. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that shutting these schools down or “reconstituting” them by firing dedicated teachers doesn’t solve these problems. In the UCLA Law Review, Andrew Spitser argued that reconstitution is arbitrary, violates collective bargaining agreements, and has a negative effect on the quality of teachers and instruction.

The loss of legitimacy and morale that would attend the labeling of a large number of schools as failing, and the upheaval caused by reconstitution in so many schools counsel further against reconstitution… school officials need to take care that the methods used to hold schools accountable do not end up punishing the children that the Act is intended to help… reconstitution threatens to do just that.21

Yet as more and more schools fail to reach the ballooning test score expectations of NCLB, we are going to see more students’ educations disrupted with this failed strategy. In addition to the high-profile “turnaround” of Central Falls High School, New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy voted in late January to close some nineteen public schools in mostly working-class Black and Latino communities. A judge has blocked the closings, but the city is appealing the decision. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already closed some ninety-one schools since 2002. And in February, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced its first “reconstitution” of Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles.

Why would the government doggedly pursue this strategy that so clearly will not solve the problems of our most-embattled schools? Because it is the logical conclusion of the “accountability” rhetoric at the heart of the neoliberal agenda. If they are going to argue that “bad teachers” must be “held accountable” for a school’s “lack of progress,” then ultimately they must get rid of some teachers to prove that they are serious. The schools that are closed or “reconstituted” are intended to set an example and discipline the rest of us to fall in line.

The Obama-Duncan agenda: A Race to the Bottom 
Obama’s first major policy initiative on education was the “Race to the Top” program (RTTT) announced in July 2009. Bringing the spirit of “free-market” competition to the highest levels of government policy, RTTT asks that the fifty states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico compete for a pool of $4.35 billion in stimulus funding for education.

On March 15, the administration announced that fifteen states and the District of Columbia had been chosen as finalists for the first round of RTTT money. The handful of winners will share less than half of the total money (about $2 billion). If a state receives the grant, 50 percent of the money must be subgranted to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) including local school districts and charter schools. As we went to press, Duncan had so far chosen only two states to receive RTTT money, Delaware (set to receive $107 million) and Tennessee (set to receive as much as $502 million). According to the Washington Post, “Duncan acknowledged that the small winner’s circle was designed as an incentive for other states to continue revamping their education policies.”22

RTTT’s criteria for awarding grants are carefully calibrated to get states to do two main things: massively expand charter schools and create data systems that allow teachers to be evaluated based on their students’ test scores. In the selection process for RTTT applicants, fifty-eight points are awarded for “improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance,” and forty points for “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools,” while only ten points are allotted for “making education funding a priority.”23

To be eligible for a grant, states must link student test scores to individual teachers and principals for the purposes of evaluation. Applications are judged based on what percentage of a state’s schools may be charters. RTTT guidelines suggest that “reviewers should give States high points if they have no caps or caps of 10 percent or more; medium points if they have caps of 5 to 10 percent; and low points if they have caps of less than 5 percent.”24 Points are also earned for getting teachers and other unions to sign memoranda of understanding agreeing to their “reform” plans.25

The RTTT funds are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the budget shortfalls. Yet the promise of these funds has been used to push through major changes to education policy in dozens of states. For example, if California had been chosen, the state would have gotten at best $700 million in one-time funds, scarcely 1 percent of its education budget. With these paltry funds as justification, the state passed a bill in December mandating punitive “turnarounds” of the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools and forcing schools to be converted to charters if 50 percent of parents sign a petition.26 Obviously, these policies were pushed not only to be eligible for the grant money but also because they coincide with the goals of politicians—from Republican Governor Schwarzenegger to liberal Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero (who sponsored the new law).27

The sixteen finalists were chosen not because of educational quality, but because they have gone farthest toward implementing neoliberal policies. Finalists Louisiana and Florida schools have consistently earned low rankings, but Florida is a shoo-in for the grant because they already have a “data system” that tracks their students’ test scores from preschool to college. Louisiana was chosen because of its thorough conversion to charter schools and busting of the teachers’ union in New Orleans. Ohio was an early proponent of for-profit charter schools, which had a horrible record in terms of student achievement.28 Rhode Island was no doubt rewarded for its dramatic attack on teachers at Central Falls High School. And six of the sixteen are Southern “right-to-work” states with weak or no unions for teachers. Now Obama has proposed extending the program, as well as expanding it by $3 billion, to fund new “innovations,” especially at charter schools.

Rebranding No Child Left Behind 
When Obama took office, his administration signaled a desire to get rid of some of the negative connotations associated with NCLB. As the Washington Post reported,

The Obama administration has made clear that it is putting its own stamp on education reform. That will mean a new name and image for a law that has grown unpopular with many teachers and suburban parents, even though it was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress. “It’s like the new Coke. This is a rebranding effort,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.29

On March 15, the Obama administration released “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the ESEA.”30 Though there may be some “rebranding” going on (Obama doesn’t use the term NCLB), the Blueprint leaves all the basic pillars of Bush’s law untouched. Like NCLB, the Blueprint focuses on “accountability” for teachers and schools based on test scores. The administration claims that the Blueprint changes the focus “from punishing failure to rewarding success,” and schools that are improving will be granted more freedom from federal intervention. But the plan calls for increased intervention for “low-performing schools.” It sets up “school turnaround grants,” which states can only receive if they choose one of four models for their most troubled schools: transformation (replacing the principal, extending the school day, and implementing new governance and “flexibility”); turnaround (replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school staff); restart (closing the school and reopening it under the management of a charter operator); or closure.

Like NCLB, the Blueprint also sets unattainable goals for school improvement, requiring all students to be on track to be “career and college ready” by 2020. As Monty Neill of FairTest explained, “If this reasonable goal is attached to an impossible timeline, it will simply become the new basis for continuing to castigate schools and teachers for not accomplishing what society has failed to provide the resources to accomplish.”31

“Pay for Performance”? 
Among progressive teachers, there are some interesting debates taking place about the issue of “differentiated pay.”32 Should we push for extra compensation for teaching in hard-to-staff schools or to attract and retain new teachers? And if we want teachers to have more power and a voice in what happens in schools, should we consider giving extra compensation to those who serve as mentors for their fellow teachers or who take extra time to develop curriculum?

Unfortunately, none of these ideas are what Obama and Duncan mean when they talk about “performance pay” for teachers. The administration is pushing a system to reward—and punish—teachers strictly based on their students’ test scores.

In his March 2009 education speech, Obama argued, “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.” Duncan later clarified what “excellence in teaching” means—improving student test scores. “What you want to do is really identify the best and brightest by a range of metrics, including student achievement,” he told the Associated Press.33

The push toward this kind of “performance pay” will be disastrous for three main reasons. First, because it will tend to punish teachers in the most challenging schools in poorer districts who must battle larger obstacles to improving their students’ learning outcomes. Teachers in less challenging schools and districts with more affluent students will be rewarded. In one county in Florida, where “merit pay” has been most fully implemented, three-fourths of the nearly 5,000 teachers who received merit pay worked at more affluent schools, and only 3 percent worked at low-income schools.34

Second, “merit pay” creates an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration among teachers. This will severely weaken union solidarity, and is poisonous to the kind of collaboration that is so essential for good teaching. As the creators of the Web site Teachers for CEO Merit Pay explain:

Performance pay structures in education force teachers to compete for a limited pool of merit-pay money, instead of collaborating to provide the best possible education. This creates a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. Thus, the main way teachers learn their craft—studying from their colleagues—is effectively discarded. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.35

Third, “merit pay” only raises the stakes on the high-stakes testing that has been proven to be both biased and a poor gauge of actual student learning. In its report, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing reviewed a range of research showing that “merit pay” leads to score inflation, narrowing the curriculum to focus solely on math and science, flawed results from for-profit testing companies, and a distortion of the goals of education—and that it may not even raise test scores.36

If we want to improve teacher quality, we need to value the teaching profession by raising the bar on teacher pay overall in the United States. A 2007 study found that starting teaching salaries in the U.S. are far below the international norm. Average teacher pay in South Korea is 141 percent of per capita gross domestic product, and just 81 percent in the U.S., which had the lowest teacher pay of the ten countries surveyed. And when teachers are compared to professionals in occupations with comparable levels of education and skills, teachers’ weekly earnings were on average almost 15 percent less.37

Charter schools 
According to Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top guidelines, charter schools “offer one of the most promising options for breaking the cycle of educational failure.”38 The evidence shows that while charter schools have been a useful way to eliminate or weaken teachers’ unions, in every other measure, they haven’t proven to be the educational Holy Grail that their promoters have claimed them to be [see "The Case Against Charter Schools" in this issue].

Responses by teachers’ unions
National leaders of the AFT and NEA have accepted many of the assumptions of the neoliberal attack. “We finally have an education president,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, following Obama’s first education speech that stressed “performance pay” and charter schools. “We really embrace the fact that he’s talked about both shared responsibility and making sure there is a voice for teachers, something that was totally lacking in the last eight years.”39

In response to the same speech, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said, “President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them. That is a wonderful feeling, for the president of the United States to acknowledge and respect the professional knowledge and skills that those educators bring to every job in the school.”40

Both unions initially voiced their support of RTTT. Weingarten said of the program, “The Department of Education worked hard to strike the right balance between what it takes to get system-wide improvement for schools and kids, and how to measure that improvement.”41 And Van Roekel said, “While NEA disagrees with some of the details surrounding the RTTT initiative, this is an unprecedented opportunity to make a lasting impact on student achievement, the teaching profession, and public education.”42

Weingarten has been supporting forms of merit pay and charter schools for years. When she was president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) from 1998 to 2009, the UFT opened two of its own charter schools and partnered with Green Dot to run a third where teachers are under separate contracts from the rest of the UFT. In October 2007, the UFT implemented “performance” bonuses for teachers at schools that improved their test scores.

Now, Weingarten is touting the new contract for New Haven teachers as “a model or a template” for the rest of the country. The contract implements performance bonuses for schools that improve their test scores; gives the school district the right to shut down and reconstitute low-performing schools as charters; and makes it easier for the district to fire teachers after a 120-day “improvement period.” New Haven teachers approved the contract by an overwhelming vote of 842 to 39.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the AFT “recently issued a batch of innovation grants to districts that are tying teacher pay to performance,” and the NEA “is taking similar steps to encourage tougher evaluations and to loosen seniority systems, moves that Mr. Duncan called ‘monumental breakthroughs.’”43

The NEA, which had largely refrained from criticizing Obama, did issue a critical statement after the release of the Blueprint:

We were expecting to see a much broader effort to truly transform public education for kids. Instead, the accountability system… still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the “blueprint” requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario. We were expecting school turnaround efforts to be research-based and fully collaborative. Instead, we see too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration.

Nevertheless, the NEA has not put forward a clear strategy on how to shift education policy.

For the AFT, Weingarten has issued a strategy piece entitled, “A New Path Forward.”44 Her proposal for fixing public education contains four elements: 1) a new, more fair, and “expedient” process of teacher evaluation and for dealing with ineffective teachers; 2) a new fair and faster system of due process for teachers accused of misconduct; 3) giving teachers the “tools, time, and trust” to succeed; and 4) creating a trusting partnership between labor and management.

Although the document purports to challenge teacher scapegoating, Weingarten’s first two recommendations accept the logic that individual classroom teachers are what’s standing in the way of quality education. The piece makes no mention of the decimation of school funding nationwide. Most importantly, “A New Path Forward” stresses collaboration with politicians and school districts at a time when we need to be mounting a serious fight against them for funding and democracy.

Why aren’t the national unions taking a more aggressive approach to fight Obama’s anti-union agenda? Obviously, their close ties with Obama and the Democrats are a major factor. Moreover, it has been a long time since teachers’ unions in the U.S. waged any large-scale struggle for our rights, and there is the perception that the Obama agenda has such broad support that it would be impossible to challenge—so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

In addition, the national unions’ approach is based on an underlying recognition that people are fed up with our public schools. Yet in the absence of our own grassroots, democratic vision of school transformation (that also protects and extends union rights), these union leaders just end up picking and choosing which aspects of the top-down reform agenda to get on board with.

Social justice teachers’ unionism 
If teachers’ unions and public education are to survive the onslaught of attacks against us, we will need to challenge the assumptions of the “partnership” model and make a fundamental shift toward social justice unionism. Social justice unions see themselves as fighting for the interests of the whole working class, not just their own members. To do this, unions must operate with a class struggle approach, take on all forms of oppression, build alliances with members of the communities in which they work, and have a global outlook.45

We know that teachers’ unions could be the leading force in a social movement for public education. The March 4th Day of Action for Public Education showed the tremendous potential for such a movement. The Day of Action was initiated by college students protesting tuition hikes in California, but eventually all California teachers’ unions got on board, holding leaflettings, school-site actions, and citywide rallies that highlighted the attacks on our public schools. Actions were also held in dozens of cities outside California. Our simple message—that public education and social services must be the top priorities of our society—resonated broadly with the general public. March 4th showed that there is no reason for our unions to be timid right now. Our fight for public education could attract millions to our side.

We will need such a mass movement to sweep away the dominance of “free-market” notions in education policy and return to the emphasis on equity that emerged from the 1960s. To win this fight, we must also win in the battle of ideas. State and federal administrators want us to believe that there are limited funds and that therefore “sacrifices” must be made (always for workers, never for well-paid administrators and executives). Nationally, the states’ total budget gap may be $375 billion for 2010-2011—half of the TARP fund used to bail out the banks. It’s not a question of a lack of funds but of priorities. Billions have been spent to bail out bankers and big businesses and to fund two unpopular wars. California spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. The rich have been under-taxed for decades now.

Such a movement will have to force major changes in how education is funded and run in this country. In California, we will have to overturn a system of state laws that have sapped the funding base from public education: the Proposition 13 cap on property taxes, tax breaks for the wealthy, and a two-thirds rule that makes it nearly impossible for the state legislature to raise taxes. This means that teachers’ unions will have to develop a serious, long-term strategy to build up a power base and push political change.

Grassroots, democratic reform versus top-down, corporate reform 
We also need to be deeply involved in putting forward our own vision and concrete plans for transforming our own schools. The left within the teachers’ unions has always fought back against cuts, but for the most part has been hesitant to get involved in reform projects to transform individual schools. We have been clear about what we are against, but much less clear about what we are for.

At the same time, radical education reformers whose focus is creating alternative school models have mostly been working at a distance from the teachers’ unions, which they see as uninterested in questions of school transformation.

If our goal is to build a mass movement for public education, radicals in the teachers’ unions need to reclaim the terrain of education visionaries and combine it with our struggle for school funding and stronger union rights. We need to be part of the small struggles to improve schools in the here and now, because these will help build the community coalitions and power to fight for the massive increase in resources that we need. Of course, meaningful, progressive school reform is unsustainable without adequate funding—and that struggle must continue. But developing a vision for the changes we want to see at each school can bring more teachers, students, and parents into our struggle and lend urgency to the fight for more resources.

In other words, we need a dual strategy to confront the dual attack of budget cuts and top-down reform. Progressive teachers in several cities have formed organizations to take on this challenge: The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators in Chicago, the Grassroots Education Movement in New York City, Educators for a Democratic Union in San Francisco, and Progressive Educators for Action in Los Angeles.46

Fighting privatization in Los Angeles 
As the Los Angeles Unified School District proceeds with large-scale cuts and layoffs, it has also begun a process that could give away dozens of our schools to privately-run organizations.

Approved by the school board on August 25, 2009, the misnamed “Public School Choice” (PSC) process opened up fifty brand-new schools and 227 “low-performing” schools to bids by “internal and external stakeholders”—including both charter schools and teacher groups. Twelve existing schools and twenty-four brand-new schools were selected as “focus schools” subject to possible takeover for the 2010-2011 school year.

The PSC process for selecting a school operator is completely undemocratic. To submit their own proposal and prevent an outside takeover of their school, teachers and parents who work full time must spend countless hours in the evenings and on the weekends to complete the lengthy application. In contrast, charter schools employ staff members working full time on the process. This year, school proposal teams had just three months to develop, discuss, and write their proposals for major transformations to their schools—a setup to exclude most voices from the conversation. And though school employees and parents can vote on which plan they prefer for their school, the vote is merely “advisory” as the superintendent and school board make the final decision.

It was tempting to abstain from this horribly flawed proposal process altogether. But without teacher and parent proposals, there would have been a far greater risk that the schools would be turned over to charters. And abstaining from the process would have left the question of what kind of changes our schools need completely in the hands of the district and the Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) decided to enter the playing field, and supported teacher groups in submitting proposals for all thirty-six focus schools. This process put teachers into discussions with each other and with parents about what kind of changes we want for our schools. How can we ensure teacher control of curriculum? How can we create more opportunities for teacher collaboration? How can we give parents a genuine voice in school decisions? How can we make students’ learning experiences more rigorous, authentic, and interesting?

“[W]e’re trying to show that we can, as teacher-educators, build a school that will benefit our children because we know our children best,” said Josephine Miller, a first-grade teacher at focus school Hillcrest Elementary. “That’s what makes this exciting.”47

UTLA’s Charter Schools Task Force developed a framework of ten social justice principles that guide our efforts toward grassroots, democratic school reform: Access, equity, excellence, personalization, relevance to students’ lives and the real world, public management and local control, public purpose, school and community connection, sustainability and capacity, and commitment to unions and collective action. We think all proposals for school reform should be judged according to these principles, and we used the PSC process to educate parents about why charter schools don’t meet these criteria.

When 87 percent of parents voted to support the teacher-developed PSC proposals in the “advisory votes,” it gave us the best piece of propaganda for our side. The whole PSC process was justified in terms of “letting parents choose”—but parents had clearly chosen to support teacher-developed plans over outside takeovers. 

In the end, the school board’s final decision gave twenty-nine of thirty-six schools to the local school plans developed by teachers. Despite a process that was set up to benefit them, charter schools took only four of the twenty-four new schools they bid for, and the two largest CMOs in Los Angeles (Green Dot and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools) were rejected completely. Three schools went to the Mayor’s Partnership (whose teachers are still in UTLA). None of our schools should have been given away, but the combination of local proposal development and grassroots community outreach helped us save the vast majority of our schools and win people in many Los Angeles communities to opposing charter takeovers.

Many more schools are up for possible takeover next year. As the attacks continue, our challenge is to show how the budget cuts and school takeovers are part of a single, neoliberal agenda for education, and to bring those concerned with budget cuts and those working toward democratic school reform into a large, unified movement.

Conclusion 
The neoliberal assault on education has the potential to destroy public schools and teachers’ unions within the next decade. Challenging it will require that we build a movement that is both militant and visionary about the future of public education. To create a broad movement of teachers, parents, and students, we have to consistently tie the issues of reform, resources, and union rights together. A movement for public education has the potential to lead the way and open up a much broader challenge to all the broken promises and conservative policies of the Obama administration: the attacks on all public-sector unions, the budget cuts to all important social services, and the funding of banks, prisons, and war instead of people’s needs.

Ultimately, a movement for public education will have to confront not just the neoliberal agenda, but the overall role of schooling in a capitalist society. If students leave school only to enter an economy where the vast majority of jobs are alienating, unfulfilling, and disempowering, how can we expect to have an education system that prepares them to be creative, critical thinkers?

As Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argued more than thirty years ago:

What we demand of U.S. schools is perfectly straightforward. We envision an educational system which, in the process of reproducing society, vigorously promotes personal development and social equality. What we have shown is equally straightforward: The major characteristics of the educational system in the United States today flow directly from its role in producing a work force able and willing to staff occupational positions in the capitalist system. We conclude that the creation of an equal and liberating school system requires a revolutionary transformation of economic life.48

This is not just a matter of the current wave of education policy, but the structure of our society itself.


  1. Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, Stephanie Walters, eds., Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools (Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, Ltd., 2008), xii.
  2. NBC Nightly News, March 11, 2010.
  3. Associated Press, “High school graduation rates plummet below 50 percent in some U.S. cities,” April 1, 2008, www.foxnews.com.
  4. Nancy, Krause, “Obama weighs in on CP teacher firings,” www.wpri.com/dpp/news/president-obama-supports-central-falls-teacher-firings.
  5. Brian Chidester, “Getting the ax at Central Falls,” Socialist Worker, March 8, 2010, http://socialistworker.org/2010/03/08/axed-at-central-falls.
  6. Randi Weingarten, “Spurring union-led innovation: public school entrepreneurs,”Huffington Post, October 8, 2009.
  7. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2008).
  8. Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
  9. “President Obama’s remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” March 9, 2009, New York Times, March 10, 2009.
  10. Ibid.
  11. www.scribd.com/doc/24665283/Green-Dot-Public-sic-Schools-original-Alain-Leroy-Locke-Charter-High-School-petition??autodown=pdf.
  12. Jitu Brown, Eric (Rico) Gutstein, and Pauline Lipman, “Arne Duncan and the Chicago success story: myth or reality?” Rethinking Schools, Spring 2009.
  13. Sarah Knopp, “Charter schools and the attack on public education,” International Socialist Review, November-December 2008.
  14. Arne Duncan interview on ABC News “Washington Watch with Roland Martin,” January 29, 2010, http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2010/01/duncan-katrina-was-the-best-thing-for-new-orleans-schools.html.
  15. Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 6, and Leigh Dingerson, “Unlovely: how the market is failing the children of New Orleans,” in Dingerson et al., eds., Keeping the Promise? 17-34.
  16. Seema Mehta, “U.S. education secretary says California students in peril,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2009.
  17. NBC News, “Teen’s beating death puts pressure on officials,” September 28, 2009, www.msnbc.msn.com.
  18. Quoted in Melissa Tussing, “Pressure on CPS board to scuttle Renaissance 2010,” Medill Reports Chicago, October 28, 2009, news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=143733&print=1, and “Report: School closings had little effect on student performance,” Medill Reports Chicago, November 5, 2009, ccsr.uchicago.edu/news_docs/6882report.
  19. Brown, Gutstein, and Lipman, “Arne Duncan and the Chicago success story.”
  20. Valerie Strauss, “Why Duncan’s record in Chicago is a problem,” Washington Post, December 29, 2009.
  21. Andrew Spitser, “School reconstitution under No Child Left Behind: Why school officials should think twice,” UCLA Law Review, June 2007.
  22. Nick Anderson and Bill Turque, “Delaware, Tennessee win education awards in first Race to the Top competition,” Washington Post, March 30, 2010.
  23. Race to the Top Program, “Executive Summary,” U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., November 2009, www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf.
  24. Race to the Top Program, “Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions,” U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., (updated) January 13, 2010, www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/faq.pdf.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Web site of Senator Gloria Romero, http://dist24.casen.govoffice.com/index.asp.
  27. Dan Walters, “Obama’s school grants are side issue in California,” Sacramento Bee, December 8, 2009.
  28. Amy Hanauer, “Profits and privatization: The Ohio experience” in Dingerson, et al., eds., Keeping the Promise?
  29. Quoted in Maria Glod, “Obama to rebrand ‘No Child Left Behind,’” Washington Post, June 23, 2009.
  30. U.S. Department of Education, “A blueprint for reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” March 2010, www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/blueprint.pdf.
  31. Monty Neill, “Congress needs a different ESEA blueprint,” National Center for Fair and Open Testing, March 23, 2010, www.fairtest.org/congress-needs-different-esea-blueprint.
  32. Barbara Miner, “The debate over differentiated pay: The devil is in the details,”Rethinking Schools Online, Autumn 2009.
  33. Quoted in Libby Quaid, “Obama education plan speech: Stricter standards, charter schools, merit pay,” Huffington Post, March 10, 2009.
  34. Miner, “The debate over differentiated pay.”
  35. www.teachersforceomeritpay.com.
  36. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “Paying teachers for student test scores damages schools and undermines learning,” November 19, 2009, www.fairtest.org/paying-for-student-test-scores-damages-schools.
  37. Miner, “The debate over differentiated pay.”
  38. Race to the Top Program, “Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions.”
  39. Libby Quaid, “Obama education plan speech: Stricter standards, charter schools, merit pay,” The Huffington Post, March 10, 2009.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Adrienne Johnstone, “We have to learn how to fight,” Socialist Worker, November 25, 2009.
  42. Dennis Van Roekel, “Responding to Race to the Top,” National Education Association video, September 2009, www.nea.org/home/35870.htm.
  43. Neil King, Jr., “Obama wins a battle as a teachers’ union shows flexibility,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2009.
  44. Randi Weingarten, “A new path forward: Four approaches to ?quality teaching and better schools,” American Federation of Teachers, January 12, 2010, aft.3cdn.net/227d12e668432ca48e_twm6b90k1.pdf.
  45. Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 165-186.
  46. “Answering the attack on teachers,” Socialist Worker, March 3, 2010, http://socialistworker.org/2010/03/03/answering-attacks-on-teachers.
  47. Howard Blume, “Teachers seek control at up-for-bid L.A. Unified Schools,” Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2010.
  48. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America:Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (London:Routledge, 1976), 265.