When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in November 2008, I was grinding my way through the eighth grade, my final year at John F. Kennedy Middle School before I was to move up to high school. While I followed the election closely, the candidates’ positions on education policy weren’t of much interest to me. And at the time, I didn’t give any thought to how my school experience could be different.
Among many progressives and liberals, there were flickers of hope that Obama’s election signaled the prospect that his presidency would lead to the reversal of the No Child Left Behind Act and Bush-era policies. It sure seemed that way once he named Stanford professor and NCLB critic Linda Darling-Hammond to head his transition’s education policy team.
But then in December 2008, any remaining optimism suddenly vanished. The president-elect appointed the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and his friend (and basketball pal) Arne Duncan to the post of secretary of education. A report by the Broad Foundation, a group that has financed anti– public education reforms, noted that Obama’s election and the appointment of Duncan “marked the pinnacle of hope for our work in education reform. In many ways, we feel the stars have finally aligned.”
As head of Chicago schools, Duncan shook up the system—in a disturbing manner. He bounced kids around from school to school to make it appear as though schools were “turning around.” He did not confront the effect of poverty on learning in a city system where 80 percent of schoolchildren live below the poverty line. He dumbed down standards, misleading the public when he pronounced that test scores had improved. He shuttered “failing” schools, replacing neighborhood schools with charters, often financed and run by fat cats and corporations. This is the man Obama put his faith in to run the Department of Education of the most powerful nation in the world.
The Obama-Duncan duo began their campaign on public education by surreptitiously slipping the Race to the Top program into the stimulus package. Few were aware of the magnitude of this initiative. Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion sweepstakes contest that dangled dollar bills before states that adopted Duncan-backed policies. As with all races, there were many more losers than winners. Obama and Duncan were well aware that states were bleeding red ink, teachers were being laid off left and right, and school budgets were being slashed. States would have little choice but to comply.
In distilled terms, Race to the Top is No Child Left Behind on steroids. Obama’s education policies have had a broader and more harmful effect on schools than Bush’s policies.
In order to qualify for money, states had to agree to tie teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, implement the Common Core standards, institute charter-school-friendly policies, and expand performance-based pay for teachers. Eleven states and the District of Columbia netted a piece of the Race to the Top money in the first two rounds and another seven states in the third round. Even though many states didn’t win a dime, they nevertheless had aligned themselves with Duncan’s policies just to compete.
Educators, many of whom had campaigned for the president in 2008, have been utterly alienated by his administration’s strategy of bashing and firing teachers. Here’s one episode that demonstrates this precisely: In 2010, when the school board of Central Falls, one of Rhode Island’s lowest-achieving and poorest school districts, voted to fire the entire high school’s teaching and support staff, President Obama and Secretary Duncan rhapsodized about the board’s decision. The secretary declared the board was “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” He, of all people, should know better. As noted, Duncan’s policies in Chicago of closing schools instead of fixing them, blaming teachers instead of honoring and supporting them, had all failed to get the desired improvements. A study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that Duncan’s school “turnaround” policies only worsened the situation, turning the schools around in the wrong direction.
Perhaps most astonishing is that there have been quite a few incidents where President Obama has publicly denounced his own Department of Education’s policies. In 2011, he announced his opposition to “teaching to the test.” A year later, in his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama reiterated that point, saying, “To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” But none of his actual policies reflect these words.
The president's education agenda is part of a much broader narrative in this country: the corporate education reform crusade. It is a movement being bankrolled by foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, other kinds of billionaires, advocacy groups, and think tanks. They want to send public education off to the guillotine. They champion a free-market, neoliberal orthodoxy, which includes closing schools, privatization, vouchers, charter schools, Common Core standards, high-stakes standardized testing, abolishing locally controlled and elected school boards, performance-based pay, and firing and admonishing teachers. They strive to profit off of schoolchildren and believe that schools should be run more like businesses and corporations. Similar to their predecessors in the “age of efficiency” in the early twentieth century, they treat children like numbers in a spreadsheet, where their worth is derived from how they perform on tests. They want to expand privately managed charter schools, many of which are involved in the resegregation of education; they also expel “problem children” at troubling rates, are mismanaged financially, and often are run by people who have little to no experience working with children.
As one writer observed in Daily Kos, “Corporate America sees no reason to educate working class students beyond the most basic level. They are seen as nothing more than future low paid drones in a brutal dog-eat-dog-cat-eat-mouse economy. The war against public education is a class war being waged by the wealthy against a growing working class resistance.”
The advocacy groups and networks that dominate the field include StudentsFirst, Democrats for Education Reform, ALEC, Students for Education Reform, Uncommon Schools, Knowledge Is Power Program, Success Academy, Stand for Children, and many others. Whenever you hear any of those names, immediately associate them with the corporate-reform agenda.
Some of the most notable foundations are equally aligned against public education. Let’s follow the money. Collectively, private philanthropies currently spend almost $4 billion a year on K–12 education. The triumvirate of the major foundations—or the “billionaire boys club,” as education historian Diane Ravitch likes to call them—are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Each has unique goals and strategies, but they all function under the umbrella of market-driven corporate reform. Wall Street financiers have also joined the crusade by investing in charter schools for personal financial gain. Thanks to the New Markets Tax Credit Program established during the Clinton presidency, banks and investors that put money into community projects, like the development of new charter schools, in low-income communities can earn a 39 percent federal tax break over seven years. Journalist Juan Gonzalez revealed in the New York Daily News, “The program . . . is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”
You’ll almost never find the people on the front lines of the corporate education movement mucking about the white, wealthy communities where they hail from and live; they’re only meddling in working-class and minority ones. I virtually guarantee these people would never send their own children to the schools they advocate for poor black and brown children.
The U.S. Department of Education is permeated with corporate reformers. There is a revolving door among the major foundations, think tanks, charter networks, and the department. For example, Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff, Emma Vadehra, previously worked at Uncommon Schools. She replaced Joanne Weiss, who before joining the administration was a partner and chief operating officer at New-Schools Venture Fund. That’s why the corporate reformers were so giddy when Obama was elected.
The national media has helped to push the corporate-reform initiatives. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy Is Reshaping K–12 Education, conducted a study on the coverage media outlets gave to the leading education foundations, including the Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Annenberg Challenge, and Milken Family Foundation, from 1995 to 2005. He found that there were “thirteen positive articles for every critical account.” The NBC Education Nation Summit held annually in New York City from 2010 to 2013 is another conspicuous example of national glorification of corporate education reform. Critics of standardized testing, the Common Core standards, and privatization schemes were rarely seen on the panel discussions. There were also not many student, teacher, or parent voices. But of course politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, and college presidents were not in short supply.
When it comes to student performance on standardized tests, Dan Goldhaber, education researcher at the University of Washington–Bothell, and his colleagues have found that teacher characteristics account for about 8.5 percent of those results and socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent. In addition, he wrote, “All the influences of a school, including school-, teacher-, and class-level variables, both measurable and immeasurable, were found to account for approximately 21 percent of the variation in student achievement.” The corporate reformers, however, have adopted a “no excuses” doctrine on the role of poverty on schooling. In other words, they deny that being in poverty is an excuse for someone to have poor academic achievement. In doing so, they fail to address the root causes of poverty and the very conditions children are living in. Nearly a quarter of American children live in poverty, putting this country just ahead of last-place Romania in the rankings of developed countries’ child poverty rates. It is one of the most disgraceful scandals of our time, yet it hardly matters at all in the calculus of the corporate reformers—or they incorrectly argue that the very measures they propose will lift children out of poverty.
Half a century ago, Michael Harrington published his influential book The Other America, a study of poverty in the United States. He noted, “The real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group. Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never have had a chance to get out of the other America.” The effects poverty has on children are revolting. Many poor children have difficulty regulating their emotions and experience chronic stress, trauma, and severe health problems. Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, the coauthor of one study on the effects of poverty on the brain, told The Washington Post, “Poverty is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day.”
How much can you really expect schools to do when you have children who are impoverished, hungry, malnourished, more vulnerable to asthma, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes, experiencing toxic stress, residing in single-parent households, and/or exposed to violence, crime, lead paint, and secondhand smoke on a daily basis? If the corporate education reformers were really committed to making life better for the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our society, they would stop making asinine comments like “Poverty is not destiny” but rather declare, as activist Kenzo Shibata once said, “Poverty shouldn’t be. Period.” And they would call for wraparound services, free breakfast programs, early childhood programs for the poor, and adequate numbers of librarians and nurses in schools in order to ameliorate the effects of child poverty, instead of waging a neoliberal jihad on American public education and teachers.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, some public schools have been transformed into community learning centers. Through partnerships with local organizations, social services, health care, mentoring, recreation activities, and parenting and adult education classes are offered year-round at these schools for the benefit of the entire community. The school becomes the anchor of the community, and poverty, malnutrition, and illnesses are mitigated to some degree. Why don’t we ask the corporate reformers to pick up the tab on the expansion of this promising approach?
As Harrington wrote, “In a nation with a technology that could provide every citizen with a decent life, it is an outrage and a scandal that there should be such social misery.” We can wipe out child poverty in this country. We have the money to do so. We are just lacking the political will.
From the book "SCHOOLS ON TRIAL" by Nikhil Goyal. Copyright © 2016 by Nikhil Goyal. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.