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One Year Later: Hope, Collapse, and Resistance

Barack Obama and George BushOne year ago Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama was elected as the United States' 44th President. For those of us with our ears to the ground on education issues - both primary/secondary and higher ed - we hoped for a change, especially because so much of Obama's primary and general election victory was won on the backs of countless students and youth volunteers.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate, is widely regarded as a failure, and has done much to degrade the learning environment for students everywhere. Obama said much to that effect during the campaign, and one of his chief education advisors on his transition team was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and an advocate for actually progressive education reform.

Arne Duncan: Business as Usual

But in the same way he appointed Wall Street suits to regulate their banking friends, Obama picked a corporate education suit to reform schools that were suffering from too much corporatization. When Arne Duncan was tapped for the post of Education Secretary, he was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools - a school district that had, under his close supervision, took the keys to the schoolyard away from teachers and parents and handed them to large corporate-funded non-profits, for-profit firms, and the U.S. military. He took his cues enthusiastically from Chicago's business elite, through their hand-crafted Renaissance 2010 project.

Arne Duncan - Renaissance 2010Duncan's rhetoric is taken wholesale from his Republican predecessors - the emphasis on "accountability", standardized tests, "raising the bar", "competing globally," and general paeans to the magic of the free market. He's even stated that schools should be run more like businesses. This point isn't lost on many - even EdWeek came right out and said that Obama's education policy is "giving George W. Bush a third term."

Since his arrival, Duncan has pushed for the very changes that hobbled education in his old job. He's argued against democracy and for all powers to be vested within a single executive (like his CEO position) in large urban school districts.

"Race to the Top" — If by "Top" You Mean "Bottom"

Obama's signature education initiative in his first year was the several billion dollar "Race to the Top" initiative. The idea is to dangle the carrot of Federal education dollars in front of schools and education officials, and have them compete with each other for them. In an economic and budgetary climate that's depriving tens of billions of dollars from states and school districts nationwide, the "Race to the Top" is essentially forcing them to adopt policies and priorities of Duncan's DoE: among them introducing and expanding charter schools (and removing any caps on charter school numbers), and establishing long-discredited "merit pay" schemes for teachers. Paul Rosenberg over at OpenLeft had a great takedown of these shenanigans, concluding that:

It's really hard to see this as anything other than a Shock Doctrine-style deal, since it's a way to force cash-starved states and schools to change education policy and practice, regardless of what they might normally and democratically choose to do.  And not only that--because the funds are limited, they could make the changes, and still not get a dime for doing so.

Progressive education reform would empower individual schools, teachers, and students to actively shape and determine their lives, and would equalize the enormous funding gap between affluent suburban school districts and working class urban school districts. This latest DoE scheme is just about as close to the opposite as one can get.

Higher Ed - two steps forward, two steps back

Slashed state budgets and withering private endowments have sent a shock through higher education, with tuition increases expected to accelerate even faster than they are now. On the plus side, Obama's stimulus bill provided roughly $30 billion in tax credits and expanded Pell grants to students.

The House of Representatives passed a bill (The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act) that would cut private lenders out of the Federal student loan program, which makes a ton of sense. It would reduce overhead (and profits), and turn those savings (estimated more than $80 billion over 10 years) into more Pell grants to go around. Obama has pledged to sign it, but it still needs to pass the Senate.

During the campaign, all three major Democratic candidates - Clinton, Edwards, and Obama - vowed to vigorously enforce the Solomon Amendment, which allows the President to cut off Federal funds to schools that bar ROTC or recruiters from campus (barred usually on the basis that they violate the school's anti-LGBT discrimination policy). We haven't seen any instance of Obama enforcing it just yet, but anecdotally I've seen the threat of it make things harder for students trying to demilitarize their campuses.

Although it didn't get a lot of play from traditional media outlets, the Pentagon is ramping up its involvement in University research. The new director for the Pentagon's research agency is putting a kinder, gentler face on the military-academic complex, while the DoD's Minerva Initiative and the National Science Foundation are setting up more than a dozen new military and "national security" contracts for social science research.

Resistance

Even before Obama had been sworn in, students were already resisting the corporatization of their schools - and articulating a vision of education beyond anything Democrats or Republicans could ever offer.

New School OccupiedOn December 11, 2008, a large contingent of New School University students in New York City occupied one of their campus buildings, demanding the resignation of their university's embattled President, Executive VP, and Treasurer, along with establishing a democratic election of their replacements, a socially responsible investment committee to oversee the school's endowment, and many other demands. While not all of their demands were met, some of them were (and later in 2009 we'd hear that NSU President Bob Kerrey is indeed planning on stepping down in 2010) - and more importantly, they laid the groundwork for future occupations, including a second New School occupation months later and an occupation at New York University.

In April of this year, one hundred students occupied administration offices at the University of Vermont just days after more than a thousand teachers and students staged a walkout - both actions condemning budget cutbacks and layoffs, especially when senior administrators are paid so much that a mere 5% pay cut for them would cover the salaries of the 27 laid off lecturers. After more than ten hours occupying the building, police dispersed the crowd and arrested 33 students. Thanks to a committed student body and campus union presence, the fight is ongoing, with multiple actions and protests since then.

UC Santa Cruz occupationOf course the most epic mark of resistance this year could be found in California this past fall. The UC system had announced that tuition and fees for in-state students would increase more than 30 percent over the next year, coming on the heels of a previous 9.3 percent hike announced in May. Hundreds of university employees are being laid off with most remaining employees subject to furloughs. On September 24, thousands of faculty, students and staff joined to protest the massive budget cuts to the state's university system -- and to protest the complicity of the university's administrations and the Board of Regents. That week saw actions, protests, and teach-ins on every UC campus. Students at UC Santa Cruz even occupied a university building for the better part of a week. And the actions continue: in October over six hundred California students converged for a conference on the education budget, and left it resolved to plan for a day of action next March - and that same month students at Fresno State held a massive walk-out and sit-in to make demands on their administration.

K-12 students, teachers, and parents are also banding together to take back their schools - from Los Angeles, to New York, to Washington DC, and many smaller, usually quiet communities in between. Independent, student-led groups are often taking the lead, like the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Philedelphia Student Union. Nationally, Students for a Democratic Society, re-established in 2006, has seen more than a hundred chapters spring up in high schools and colleges across the country, all dedicated on the premise that students deserve a free, quality, and democratic education where students and teachers - not administrators and officials - call the shots. Most chapters have held actions or are organizing against tuition hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts, and many are mobilizing for a Nov. 10 national day of action for free and liberating education for all.

There are many, many other examples of ordinary people organizing to take on the foundations of a dysfunctional education system - and that's telling in and of itself. While politicians in state and national capitals continue down the bipartisan road to ruin, folks on the ground in their own communities are working outside the ballot box to rescue themselves and build better schools - and a better world. While it would be nice if they helped, we're going to get there with or without President Obama and Congress.

A Warning Sign for the Charter School Movement

Charter SchoolCREDO report co-author Kenneth Surratt and Bob Peterson, founding editor of Rethinking Schools and 5th grade teacher, talked on Democracy Now! about CREDO's latest report on charter schools. The report that found that, on average, students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools - particularly black and latin@ students.

Augusta Chronicle:

 Independent studies of charter schools show that they might not be quite the silver bullet people think they are.

A report just released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University analyzed data from more than 2,400 charter schools in 16 states, including Georgia. The CREDO report found that students in charter schools, as a whole, are "not faring as well as students in traditional public schools."

Only one in six charter schools - 17 percent - had academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their public school counterparts. Nearly half of the charter schools - 46 percent - showed no significant difference between the performance of their students and public school students.

[...]

Other studies have shown similar results for charter school performance.

An analysis of test data by the U.S. Education Department during the administration of George W. Bush showed that charter school students generally did not perform as well as those in regular public schools. The federal study said charter students scored significantly lower than regular public school students in math, while in reading there was no statistically significant difference.

 Part 1:

 Part 2:

 

When it Comes to Education, Democrats Hate Democracy

Late last month, Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out swinging against elected school boards:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.
[...]
He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.

"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"

After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.

"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

Arne Duncan Renaissance 2010In a sense, I can understand his motivation: as head of Chicago Public Schools, he was a direct recipient of abrogated school board power. The democratic, decentralized, and much-lauded Local School Council system in Chicago (which was created in the late 80s through tireless grassroots community organizing against the very bureaucracy Duncan would end up running) was systematically gutted and ignored under his tenure. It also isn't surprising that his main line of attack is that institutions of learning and governance aren't run enough like businesses. Duncan's Renaissance 2010 program was written and handed to him by the big business players in Chicago and elsewhere.

Now the Center for American Progress, through its panoply of blogs, is pushing the idea with some help with Mayor Bloomberg. Both CAP's Wonk Room and Matthew Yglesias blogs talked up the idea that really, having fewer elected officials means more democracy. Tom Vander Ark at the Huffington Post called what little democratic control we have over our schools to be a "strange historical remnant." Yglesias took the idea and ran with it, all the way to its monarchical end:

I think this is part of a larger issue about getting democracy right in the United States. There was an assumption, at one time, that you could make government more democratic and accountable by, in essence, multiplying the number of elected officials.

In retrospect, I think this was based on flawed logic and faulty assumptions that forgot to account for the fact that people have a limited amount of time they’re realistically going to spend monitoring public officials.
[...]
I think part of the answer is that states should probably adopt unicameral legislatures and consider cutting down on the number of independently elected statewide officials. But cutting down on the quantity and influence of hyper-local electeds and putting responsibility in the hands of visible figures like the mayor and city council is crucial.

Apparently Bloomberg did an interview for ThinkProgress, part of which featured him extoling the virtues of dictatorial control over schools, teachers, and students, with the help of bogus, cooked numbers:

My favorite part is near the end, when he says: “...you could literally end democracy as we know it here in this country… without an educated public. And when you have these school boards that are fundamentally controlled by special interests, the truth of the matter is that students come last, if at all.” Fewer elected officials = more democracy! It all makes perfect sense now!

Thankfully, regular readers largely countered and ridiculed such a position:

The flipside of Matt’s point is that when a single local elected executive is responsible for EVERYTHING, it’s pretty hard to hold him or her accountable for any specific thing. If you like what Bloomberg’s doing with, say, public safety and housing but don’t like his education policies, how do you hold him accountable? You can’t cast half a vote. On the other hand, a school board subject to being voted out of office can be held accountable.

And one of the commenters actually mentions what progressive reform of our school systems would look like:

The other kind of reform that is possible is to empower parents and teachers, but in order to do that you don’t need to gather power into the office of the mayor- you need to distribute power into the neighborhoods, families, and classrooms.

Another tip-off is the exaggerated concern about the “special interests”. Matt isn’t talking here about the textbook publishers and computer sellers- a mayor who doesn’t know anything about education isn’t going to tangle with those “experts”. And he isn’t talking about the real estate industry that wants to keep school taxes low- no mayor is going to try to trim the horns of the real estate barons.

No, when Matt is talking about “special interests” he’s referring to teachers and parents. Transfer the powers of the school board to the mayor’s office and those “special interests” will have just as much influence as the rest of us in an election- which is to say, none.

Authoritarian, bureaucratic schools are a bipartisan affair in politics - which means it's going to take a lot more than mere elections to reclaim our country's educational systems.

Arne Duncan: Your Voice for a Commodified Education

A Court Victory for Student Free Speech

Earlier this month, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the right of public school students to criticize school policies. The First Amendment Center:

How much of an activist were YOU in 8th grade?

Just say no to standardized tests!
Okay, check out this awesomeness:

More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx - virtually the entire eighth grade - refused to take last Wednesday's three-hour practice exam for next month's statewide social studies test.

Instead, the students handed in blank exams.

Students Fight for the Right to Protest

Over 250 high school students who staged a one-hour walkout on March 19th to protest the Iraq War are fighting the principal's decision to give them all two day detentions and fighting for the right to free expression in school. From their March 31st press release:

“This detention is unfair, because we were taking a chance to voice our opinions and educate ourselves, which we are not given the opportunity to adequately do so in school,” said Aislinn Bauer, a Princeton High School sophomore and one of the organizers of the walkout. “We’re turning this punishment into something productive.”
“What I do not understand is how we were able to miss three periods to see Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience perform and throw Mardi Gras beads at us, which had little to no educational value,” said Russell Cavallaro, another Princeton High School sophomore. “This walkout actually had educational value. Students were educated on the causes of the war, why it should never have happened, and had a chance to offer their respects to the fallen soldiers.”

The Times also covered the situation:

 

[...] sophomore Aislinn Bauer, said the rally against the war gave students an opportunity that isn't found in the classroom.
During history lessons, she said, it's more acceptable to talk about past events than to discuss conflicts existing today.
"It's as if the teachers don't want to get in trouble or cause problems by engaging in debate that has many different sides. But this war is very real," Bauer said. "We had to take it in our own hands to educate ourselves and others."

I got a chance to talk to Arantzazu Galdos, one of the organizers of the protest. She said that students converged on the Board of Education on the 31st, and presented their case of what happened.

The walkout organizers informed the principal of their impending action well in advance. "He started off telling us that it's alright, and then a couple of days before the walkout he started basically yelling at us," said Galdos. "He said things like 'I can't believe you're doing this,' 'do this on your own time,' and then he turned around and told the press how proud he was" of what they were doing. According to Galdos, Judy Wilson, the District Superintendent, said she frankly didn't believe them.

The students at the walkout signed petitions demanding the school district inform students of their right to opt-out of military recruiting contact lists (No Child Left Behind made it a requirement that high schools share their students' information to military recruiters - making what used to be an opt-in situation an opt-out situation). Another petition demanded the right to speak out on political issues when they are brought up in classes - "political discussion is routinely silenced in class, even when we're talking about an issue," Galdos said.

At the school board meeting, parents and community members also took the time to voice their support for the students. There is a larger board meeting coming up on April 22 at 8pm, and the organizers expect to have a large presence there as well.

This is a great example of thinking globally and organizing locally. Instead of just having a walk-out to protest the Iraq War (which really would do nothing to stop the war itself), they linked the war with issues relevant to the students -- the right to opt-out of being harassed by military recruiters, and the right to freedom of expression in school. That's probably how they were able to get about a quarter of the entire student population out of their classes and on the front lawn (despite the Principal's -- ever vacillating -- disapproval). And now that they have 250 signatures on those petitions, along with students who have materially invested themselves in a previous action (the act of leaving class, and getting detention), the time is ripe for increased organizing in the next few months -- especially at a time where students are getting more and more restless as the summer approaches.

Kudos to the walkout organizers, and I wish them success going forward.

Students Walk Out in Solidarity with Striking Teachers



In the town of Garfield, NJ, where teachers have been working without a contract for months now, hundreds of teachers called in sick to work on the same day, effectively taking part in a wildcat strike. The Record:

Hundreds of students stormed out of Garfield High School Friday chanting, cheering and holding signs in support of their teachers, who have been working without a contract since the end of the last school year.

The brief rally, triggered by a fire alarm around 9 a.m., came a day after 350 teachers called out sick in an apparent protest over the contract negotiations. The district closed schools Thursday.

Students held signs that read, "No Contracts! No Teachers! No Students!" and "Settle Contracts."

"They don’t have any contracts, that's crazy," said one student, standing on Outwater Lane outside the high school.

The fates of students and educators are inextricably linked, and when they act in solidarity with each other against a common threat, wonderful things can happen.

No Education, No Life! The Baltimore Algebra Project Takes Its Fight to Annapolis

Members and supporters of the Baltimore Algebra Project in AnnapolisThe Baltimore Algebra Project is a student-led inter-school coalition of inner city youths in Baltimore, MD. Originally formed as a study group to help students learn after school, it has grown into an activist organization fighting for the right to a good education in inner-cities.

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