The election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States gave hope to millions around the country that significant change was in the offing. Yet it should be obvious to most that Obama’s election has far from ushered in a new “post-racial” era. Nowhere is this clearer than the re-segregation of America’s schools. According to the 2009 Civil Rights Project report:
40 percent of Latinos and 39 percent of blacks now attend intensely segregated schools. The average black and Latino student is now in a school that has nearly 60 percent of students from families who are near or below the poverty line. These doubly segregated schools by race and poverty have weaker teaching forces, much more student instability, more students who come to school not speaking English and many other characteristics related to family and neighborhood poverty and isolation that make challenging educational environments. These are the schools where much of the nation’s dropout crisis is concentrated.
This report reaffirmed a study conducted by Harvard University a few years earlier, which declared that schools in the Northeast and on the West Coast are still more segregated than schools in the South. Fifty-five years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students denied Black children equal educational opportunities, American public schools are today more segregated than they have been since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, as Paul Street highlights in his book Segregated Schools, two court decisions since Brown have established a new legal precedent that allows school districts to get away without even satisfying the conditions of “separate but equal,” established under the infamousPlessy v. Ferguson decision. In Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District (1973) the Court ruled against poor children of color who claimed that their poorly funded low-tax school district violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. The decision stated that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutional right for children in the United States. Similarly, in 1995, the Supreme Court overturned a lower federal court’s order requiring Kansas City to improve test scores for their urban minority students before being released from a federal desegregation order. The Court’s decision freed school districts from any requirement to pay for compensatory programs in racially isolated schools. Not only does de facto segregation no longer violate the federal Constitution, but unequal funding is also technically permissible.
It is important to note, however, that the major battles against desegregation were fought outside the courtroom. As Street points out,
there was almost no measurable decline in school segregation in the South between the Brown decision and the middle 1960s. Ten years after Brown, just one fiftieth of Southern black children attended integrated schools in the South. And Northern segregation remained essentially unaltered through the mid-1970s.... Southern desegregation picked up speed during the mid-1960s and leaped forward at a practically revolutionary pace during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It took the active participation of thousands of Americans in the civil rights and Black Power movements to catapult desegregation forward and to begin realizing the promise of Brown.
Since the 1970s segregation has reestablished itself as part of the backlash against the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The emphasis on standardized tests and increasingly standardized curriculums, the encroachment of advertising into public schools, the encouragement of pedagogy that stresses memorization rather than critical thinking, the attack on teachers’ unions, the militarization of schools, and the use of profit motives to motivate both teachers and students are all results of neoliberal efforts to transform schools from a public investment into a private enterprise. All this exacerbates inequality in schools, which stems from the increasing inequality in the general population. In 1973 the average CEO made 35 times what a worker did; now he or she makes 500 times what a worker makes. Inequality has grown to where the richest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The move away from a welfare state and the transfer of wealth to the top of society was also a conscious shift away from dealing with issues of race and racism. State intervention, whether in the form of education spending, affirmative action, unemployment, or welfare, was replaced with a refusal to acknowledge institutionalized oppression and exploitation.
The high point of neoliberal policies in school reform was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB, passed in 2001, created a host of unattainable achievement goals measured through massive amounts of standardized testing. Under these new targets, schools are set up to fail, and when they do the federal government swoops in to “restructure” (i.e. privatize) them. As we enter into what is now commonly acknowledged as the greatest crisis of the “free-market” since the Great Depression, where the government is pouring billions of dollars into the financial system in order to prop up banks that have been deregulated to the point where behavior that would normally be considered gambling is a perfectly legal affair, one would think that the first Black president of the United States might shift course against the privatization of public education and toward desegregation and equity in our public schools.
Yet the choice of Arne Duncan as education secretary is deeply troubling for those hoping to revitalize public education in America. As Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman have noted:
Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools, and fired entire school staffs.
Duncan headed up the Renaissance 2010 plan established by the elite Commercial Club of Chicago. With the help of the corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearny, the Commercial Club unleashed one of the most ambitious school privatization schemes since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (where almost the entire public school system was reorganized into charter schools). Renaissance 2010 called for the closing of one hundred public schools and reopening them as privatized charter schools. Duncan became an enthusiastic advocate for the Commercial Club’s scheme, privatizing Chicago public schools at a rate of about twenty schools per year. Revealing his corporate-minded orientation to schooling, Duncan told a room full of businessmen at the Commercial Club’s “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education” symposium in May of 2008, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve my portfolio.”
This type of NCLB free-market zealotry at a time of racial apartheid in America’s schools and the complete breakdown of traditional free-market ideology as a result of the economic crisis, should have immediately disqualified Duncan from playing any role in shaping presidential education policy. Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions, where most would expect to find significant opposition to the appointment of Arne Duncan, instead heaped praise on Duncan‘s policies and ensured his appointment. In a statement released in December 2008, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers stated, “Duncan has shown a genuine commitment to what we see as the essential priorities for an incoming education secretary…. Duncan has collaborated with the Chicago Teachers Union and other community partners on various reform programs to help students with the greatest needs.”
Likewise, Jo Anderson, the executive director of the Illinois Education Association applauded Obama’s choice claiming “we have worked collaboratively with Arne Duncan in a number of ways to improve all Illinois public schools.” Weingarten and Anderson apparently missed the group of mothers who had to organize a hunger strike under Duncan’s tenure in order to win the construction of a new high school in Little Village, a Latino community that had been underserved for years. Nor did they likely consider when making these statements the group of parents, teachers, and students at Senn High School who organized, in opposition to Duncan, against the placement of a Naval academy within their school building. These statements reveal more about the bankruptcy of the established teacher union leadership than they do about the merits of Arne Duncan’s policies.
Real education reform must include wresting control of the teachers’ unions from the labor bureaucrats and putting it back into the hands of rank-and-file educators. “Social-movement” unionism that unites teachers with the communities they serve in a common fight for better schools must simultaneously take up the issues of racism and inequity in public schools today. The appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary should be a wake-up call for all teachers, students, and parents that were hoping Obama might steer education policy in a different direction. If the civil rights movement of the 1960s teaches us anything, it is that significant political reforms only come from the self-mobilization of the ordinary people fighting for change we want to see.