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Arne Duncan’s Dark Years in Chicago


Progressives across the country have been disappointed in President-elect Obama’s appointment of various cabinet members. As an educator, the appointment of Arne Duncan to Secretary of Education, particularly in light of Obama’s rhetoric and the platform of the Democratic Party, raises significant concerns about the future of public school education.

Current Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling, a test-till-they-drop “reformer” appointed by President Bush, praised Duncan as a “visionary” reformer who would be a “great choice” to take over the position.  At this point in time, after 8 years of appalling policies in nearly all aspects of federal government (education included), praise from any high-level Bush appointee should be at least a red flag if not a first strike.

But blaming Bush II alone for various policies conceals deeper-seeded problems in America. Education has suffered under both parties.  For instance, President Bush’s landmark legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), shares the core values of the Democratic Party as expressed by the New Democratic Coalition, the Democratic Leadership Council, the Progressive Policy Institute, and Democrats For Education Reform – all guiding forces in the new administration.  In fact, Andrew J. Rotherham, an Obama campaign advisor, published an articled titled, “How Bush Stole Education,” claiming, “Mr. Bush’s education agenda is largely a New Democratic one.”

The reform proposed by the Democratic Party, echoed by Obama, and practiced for the last 8 years by Arne Duncan as CEO (yes, CEO) of Chicago Public Schools include: a neoliberal, market-based approach to improving the education system, including the outsourcing and privatizing of public schools; militarization; and a severely narrowed curriculum.

Duncan leaves his position in Chicago with quite a legacy.  He used the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind to close underperforming schools, mandate curricula, and fire entire school staffs based on standardized test scores.  Working with the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group representing the city’s wealthy businesses, Duncan headed a program called “Renaissance 2010,” designed to close the most “underperforming” schools based strictly on test scores and open new charter schools in the same neighborhoods – neighborhoods also primed for gentrification.  Some of Duncan’s plans have been foiled by community advocacy groups, the only force willing to stand up against the collusion of government officials and corporate interests.

Over the past seven years, Duncan helped the city of Chicago open over 100 new schools (at least 84 charters run by Renaissance 2010 with 31 more planned), including the city’s second Disney-run elementary school, 5 military academies with more in planning stages, for-profit schools, non-profit organizations receiving financial backing from “educational venture funds,” and charter schools funded by big business (Boeing, Citigroup, Bank of America, Washington Mutual, and the Gates Foundation among others – all given corporate tax breaks, buyouts, and tax deductions that take money from our public schools).  There are, undoubtedly, a number of remarkable charter schools in Chicago offering a high-quality education, but they are a small minority. However, since the beginning of his tenure in 2001, Chicago schools have become more segregated (in fact, America’s schools are more segregated now than during 1954’s landmark Brown vs. Board legislation) in part because of expanded charter schools.

Increasing the number of charter schools, as called for by Obama and the New Democrats, is designed to apply market-based solutions to our public school system.  Touted as “school choice” by liberals and conservatives alike, the expansion of charter schools is designed to provide parents with alternatives to their neighborhood school, particularly in areas with schools labeled “failing” based on standardized tests.  Under this ideology, failing public schools benefit from increased competition for their services and either improve or face elimination.

Meanwhile, new charter schools face far less regulation and less accountability during their first few years. The charter school experience either provides a curriculum that should be the envy of the world or teach-to-the-test discipline with a bland curriculum.  The test-till-you-drop method, utilizing the “research-based” models designed solely to improve test scores, appeals to the CEOs running charter school administrative companies (complete with their “chain” of schools, such as Alliance, Nobel, or ACT), Department of Education officials, and businesses providing capital.

The best charter schools, staffed by teachers envisioning a radically different kind of experience of childhood, resemble the education every child deserves but few receive: child-centered, stimulating, and explorative, with relevant materials and teaching strategies flexible enough to reach all learners.

The policies touted as educational “reform” by the New Democrats apply the same neoliberal theories responsible for NAFTA, the WTO, and GATT with the same results: the inequalities become greater while those in positions of power receive even greater rewards.  A two-tired education system lurks in the distance, the result of neoliberal efforts to create equality.  The gradual privatization and outsourcing of public schools represents a shift towards the voucher system, the ideal school system envisioned by Milton Friedman and present-day neoconservatives.

The dull, “research based” education models explicitly required by sanctions in NCLB, inflicted on America’s poorest children, and peddled by private, for-profit companies are designed explicitly to raise test scores.  The marginal gains accomplished in the so-called “turnaround” schools are the result of data manipulation and drilling students with the question-answer format used in high-stakes testing. This is far from genuine education and contributes to a curriculum void of civics, history, social studies, physical education, health education, and active community building.  Most importantly, this kind of education treats our children as either young factory workers or future executives based almost exclusively on their access to quality education.  The educational inequality helps ensure poor children learn to read simple instructions and compute basic math, skills suited for minimum-wage employment, while middle- and upper-class students learn the “21st Century Skills” desired by corporate America in private schools, the affluent suburbs, and exclusive charters operating within impoverished districts.

Building a quality education system begins with providing more support for our children, particularly in densely populated urban areas.  Education reform must incorporate serious social reforms to achieve equal access, equal education, and meaningful standards.  The military budget, over $1 trillion when fully calculated, is nearly twenty times greater than the federal government’s education budget. A cut in military expenditures combined with tax increases for big corporations (the Government Accountability Office reports that over half of “big businesses,” defined as corporations with assets over $250 million, report zero tax liability during at least one year between 1998 and 2005) would help put more teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff in public schools and free up public dollars for badly needed social services while creating worthwhile  jobs.  We could also repeal Public Law 96-252, which prevents the FCC from restricting advertising to children, get rid of No Child Left Behind, provide affordable housing in urban areas instead of blowing up Iraqi and Afghani homes, build libraries instead of bombs, construct community centers instead of tanks.  The neoliberal, market-based approach proposed by the New Democrats, Duncan, and Obama fails to produce the kind of experience we are morally obligated to provide our children: an education that encourages all children to think about the circumstances of their lives and how the world could be different.

KENNETH LIBBY is a student-teacher in the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at








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