American Public Schools, RIP


A feature of the Obama presidency has been his campaign against the American public school system, eating way at the foundations of elementary education.  That means the erosion of an institution that has been one of the keystones of the Republic.  The project to remake it as a mixed public/private hybrid is inspired by a discredited dogma that charter schools perform better.  This article of faith serves an alliance of interests – ideological and commercial – for whom the White House has been point man.  A President whose tenure in office is best known for indecision, temporizing and vacillation has been relentless since day one in using the powers of his office to advance the cause.  Such conviction and sustained dedication is observable in only one other area of public policy: the project to expand the powers and scope of the intelligence agencies that spy on, and monitor the behavior of persons and organizations at home as well as abroad.

The audacity of the project is matched by the passive deference that it is accorded.  There is no organized opposition – in civil society or politics.  Only a few outgunned elements fight a rearguard action against a juggernaut that includes Republicans and Democrats, reactionaries and liberals – from Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to the nativist Christian Right of the Bible Belt.  All of this without the national “conversation” otherwise so dear to the hearts of the Obama people, without corroboration of its key premises, without serious review of its consequences, without focused media attention.

This past week, as the deadline approached for states to make their submissions to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education requesting monies appropriated under the Race to the Top initiative, we were reminded that the DOE has decreed that no proposal will be considered where the state government has put a cap on charter schools.  In other words, the federal government has put its thumb heavily on the scales of local deliberations as to what approach toward charter schools best serves their communities’ interests.  Penalties are being imposed on those who choose to limit, in any quantitative way, the charter school movement.

This heavy-handed use of federal leverage by the Obama administration should not come as a surprise.  After all, Obama himself has been a consistent, highly vocal advocate of “privatization.”  He has travelled the country from coast to coast, like Johnny Appleseed, sowing distrust of public schools and – especially – public school teachers.  They have been blamed for what ails America – the young unprepared for the 21st century globalized economy; the shortage of engineers; high drop-out rates; school districts’ financial woes, whatever.

To hear Mr. Obama explain it, one would think that full employment in 2007 turned into the lowest rate of employment among working age adults in 40 years in 2013 because of America’s teachers falling down on the job – the failure of public schools to prepare students for radical structural changes in the job market.  He downplays the Wall Street/Fed created financial crisis or his administration’s mishandling of the recovery effort.  Nor does it have anything to do with downsizing, outsourcing, and the business world’s discovery that productivity can rise by paying workers less and resorting to temps.  As for the financial squeeze on school districts, this too was laid at the door of greedy teachers unions who resisted having their salaries cut or their contracted pensions slashed.*  They became scapegoats for a condition stemming from the protracted Great Recession and the austerity mania that his rhetoric and actions helped to promote.

Let us recall some highlights of this presidential campaign.  In 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan castigated public school teachers in Rhode Island for going on strike to protest arbitrary changes in working conditions and wages while encouraging authorities to fire them if necessary.  He “applauded” the move to fire every teacher at Central Falls High School (as reported in the Providence Journal).  This is from an administration that never asked anyone to resign from AIG, Bank of America, CITI, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Fannie Mae or Ginny Mae.

Similarly, in 2012-2013, Obama lent the tacit backing of the White House to Rahm Emanuel’s strategy for busting the Chicago teachers union and for a mass closing of public schools.  Secretary Duncan has been given free rein to use the powers of his department to cajole and pressure states into the unqualified promotion of charter schools – whatever the record shows about their mediocre record.

Duncan’s office has been the moving force behind a concerted effort to conceal the reality of what charter schools have, and have not, accomplished.  The truth is not very pretty.  Overall, the performance of their students on standardized tests, and graduation rates, are marginally worse on than those of the country’s public schools.  The drop-out rate among minorities is actually higher.**  This dismal record is despite the preferential treatment that charter schools’ receive: subsidies above and beyond the budgets of counterpart public schools; the cherry-picking of students that excludes many of those with chronic learning and/or discipline problems and/or from non-English speaking families; etc.

Other results are more favorable – for investors.  A number of start-up companies have jumped onto the charter school bandwagon with little experience in education and with their eyes fixed on the bottom line.  They hire a disproportionately large percentage of young teachers who may be highly motivated but who lack the essential seasoning that makes for quality teaching.  These youngsters of course are given lower salaries that veteran teachers would receive.  This exploitation is encouraged by Arne Duncan who makes much of the opportunities thereby created to tap the market of unemployed recent college graduates.  It supposedly is a good and virtuous thing that they may spend only a few years in the classroom before moving on to other career “experiences” – to be replaced by yet another batch of enthusiastic, underpaid novices.  Several states, e.g. Texas, do not even require charter schools to hire certified teachers – easy come, easy go.  Presumably, the senior teachers who are laid off as their public schools are shuttered are expected to retrain as greeters at COSTCO and Target.  Their expectations of being solidly middle class then will be fulfilled by their children who avail themselves of Obama’s shaky ladders of opportunity to acquire the skills needed to entrepreneur their own charter school companies.

Shouldn’t we ponder this question: what reasonable, qualified, person would be inclined to pursue teaching as a career under these circumstances?  In fact, the voluntary drop-out rate of school teachers is at historical highs.  Nationally, 16% leave after the first year; approximately 45% leave within five years.***  This is significantly higher than the student fail rate.  Of Florida’s 2,280 public elementary and middle schools, only 17 scored an “F” on the FCAT.  Of the state’s 270 Charter elementary and middle schools, 15 flunked.  In Ohio, in one year the state’s school report card gave more than half of Ohio’s 328 charter schools a D or an F. Many charter schools themselves fail under their own weight; 15% of those established since 1995 have gone bust.  In Florida, which does no significant monitoring of charter schools, the failure rate is double that. 17 charter schools in Columbus closed in one year – 2013….Nine of the 17 schools that closed lasted only a few months this past fall. When they closed, more than 250 students had to find new schools. The state spent more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money to keep the nine schools open only from August through October or November.

Where are the students thereby abandoned shunted to – with what disruption in theirs studies?

To round out this picture, the White House hypes opening pre-college education to the money and influence of business.  President Obama in recent months has been touring the country to tout these partnerships wherein curriculum, teaching methods, and materials are designed in part by the businesses who may hire these vocationally trained graduates.  Vocational training does have a long history in the United States at the secondary level and it is not entirely a bad thing; we need highly skilled machinists.  What we do not need are students siphoned away from a liberal education to be molded into drones to serve the corporate machine.  Can we trust business interests with the main responsibility for structuring, and partly financing such programs – at a time when austerity policies continue to cut back public spending and local school boards are under immense pressure to privatize?

The distressing truth of the matter is that, in most states, any group of guys able to present what looks like a “sound business plan” can obtain a certificate to set up a charter school.  The most worrying phenomenon is the manipulation of charter school curriculum to serve the ideological interests of the groups that run them.  In Texas, Indiana, Ohio and other states, “creationism” and related Bible based ‘science’ has replaced standard approaches.  (Slate Jan 16) A Right- wing interpretation of American history that, among other things, casts the New Deal as the workings of “un-American” spirit in the land is becoming commonplace.  The businessman’s view as to government’s role in regulation also is gaining authority and prominence.  In short, the charter school way is entrenching the ideas and attitudes of a sectarian element in American society whose ascendance already has wrought enormous damage.  That a Democratic president should be the agent of this transformation is a telling commentary on where this White House and those who back him to the bitter end have gone wrong.

Of all the institutions that made the United States into a coherent society, none made a greater contribution than our public schools.  It was they that fashioned a loyal citizenry bound by a core of civic values and a collective identity – regardless of creed, national origin, religion or political preference.  It was they that molded a disparate population into a unified nation. That may not be the case in the future.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

*In Texas, state funding for schools was cut by 10.8 billion between 2011 and 2013. The shock waves caused severe destruction in districts across the state.  Many school kids in rural areas had to walk up to two miles to school when bus service was eliminated.  Governor Perry proclaimed that performance should not be hurt since schools misallocate the money they receive anyway.  The predicted strengthening in the “moral fiber” of Texas children from dealing with this adversity is not yet discernible.

**The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found in a 2009 report that 17% of charter schools outperformed their public school equivalents, while 37% of charter schools performed worse than regular local schools, and the rest were about the same. A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that, on average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than regular middle schools in improving student achievement, behavior, or school progress. Among the charter schools considered in the study, more had statistically significant negative effects on student achievement than statistically significant positive effects. These findings are echoed in a number of other studies.

Charter schools also are likely to benefit from enrolling an easier-to-educate group of students than public schools. On average, charter schools enroll fewer foreign-born, fewer students with disabilities, and fewer homeless students in comparison with public schools. Some of the highest-performing charter schools also lose many students, most likely their lowest performers, who often return to local public schools.

*** The relatively poor performance of students in the United States on standardized tests compared to students in other developed countries is misleading.  When allowance is made for those from non-English speaking homes and disadvantaged racial communities, American students score close to the top of the table. (Education Law Center)




Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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