Why Obama is a Disaster for Urban Educators

It looks like No Child Left Behind is dead but as some creatures can lose a tail and grow it back…this beast still breathes.

Some of the proposals (Congress still has to ratify) from the Obama Department of Education to change NCLB:

The goal of student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 would change to a standard of “college and career readiness” for students by 2020.

For the last 9 years students, teachers and administrators in the US took part in lots of running around chasing the unattainable 2014 goal of 100 per cent proficiency in Reading and Math or risk having their budgets cuts, schools closed or administration fired.  Chasing yearly gains for this impossible goal (which improved little nation wide ) was mostly a waste of time and resources.  The districts that put off the deadline and resisted the law were correct.  The 100 per cent compliance was a setup for union busting, Charter schools and privatization.

Lesson learned.  Prescription in the future: resist all mandates that are designed to destroy public education and punish the poor and the disabled.

Now Obama proposes a much more nebulous goal that can mean just about anything to anyone: 100 per cent “college and career readiness” by 2020, this in a country where around 28 per cent of the population has a Bachelor’s degree.

Nothing for vocational education?

Reading and math tests would remain in the administration’s proposal but schools could also include student performance in other subjects as part of overall measurements of progress.

In districts where NCLB was treated as gospel almost all other courses became superfluous and got short shrift, this in an effort to bring up test scores or face severe penalties.


Evaluations of schools would shift to try and avoid the failing school label offering more rewards.

But the bottom 5 per cent of schools (a huge percentage of my district-Milwaukee Public Schools) will be offered a draconian plan of action which includes firing teachers and administrators, closing schools and opening private Charter schools in their place.

President Obama has already endorsed the wholesale firing of teachers in Rhode Island signaling, like Ronald Reagan with the Air Traffic Controllers in the early 1980’s, a war on teachers’ unions in urban districts (probably his strongest supporters).

This part of the plan would be the greatest attack on public schooling, particularly for the poor and minorities, ever to come from the national government.

Schools that miss certain targets would not be required by the federal government to provide students with tutoring or with the option to transfer.

Most students offered tutoring during the last 9 years of NCLB did not take the offer. Lots of tutoring companies got extremely rich during this period, testing companies too.

Most students never transferred even when offered the option.

Good, but still offer tutoring to those that want it.  Choice is fine but make sure all schools are funded equally.

More federal funding would be switched from formula-based allocations to competitive grants (Race to the Top).

Thus the scramble by many states and here in Wisconsin by Governor Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who is running for Governor), Department of Public Instruction top Tony Evers and a local cast of Milwaukee Democratic law-makers to embrace the elimination of the school board.  This plan would disenfranchise urban voters and put power in the hands of the Mayor as has been done in New York, DC, Boston and other urban districts in the name of accountability.  These plans actually do the opposite – create less accountability – as voters rarely vote for Mayors on the basis of their education plan.

State and local politicians want the federal money to deal with fiscal problems, gain political points from the feds and they want political credit for “change.”  With the massive politicization of education policy over the last 15 years or so we have seen extreme makeovers in places like San Diego, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington DC and the constant has been little change in achievement and lots of press conferences by Mayors, Governors and other “reformers.”  In the end these moves are political in nature.

This part of the plan will mostly target poor people for radical change. Public schools will be the losers because it will encourage a scramble by politicos for money for education that will put forward the most radical plan to show that they are the real “reformers.”  In the end this plan will push the most poor and the disabled into public schools and those families with some savvy into private and Charter schools as is already occurring.

The irony here is that Obama, as the first African-American president, is attacking the one institution that has historically been a conveyer of class mobility for countless immigrants and poor people.  And in the end he is doing this not for the greater good but for votes in the suburbs.

In Wisconsin almost everyone in the state has an opinion on Milwaukee Public Schools.  A Milwaukee teacher I know was at a bar before a Packer game this season and was accosted by a spouse of a friend he was at the game with.  Said suburban spouse attacked, asking how he could live with himself sucking the life out of the Milwaukee community with his Cadillac health plan and excessive pension.  The level of propaganda against our school system and students is breath-taking with local Limbaugh wannabes weekly taking on student behavior at basketball games and “lazy” teachers.  The former Republican Governor in many ways made his public career attacking the teachers’ union and “sticking it to Milwaukee” (an actual quote by our former Governor).

The political calculation for Obama, and others who have taken a similar tack, is that in the end urban voters and teachers’ unions will back them in the end because there is no other game in town.  For the suburbs and the white community they are applying tough love.  But public education, students and our common community are the sacrificial lambs in this cynical game.

The Obama administration has been a disaster for urban educators.  He has proposed paying for his health care subsidy to the insurance companies with a 40 per cent excise tax on our health benefits.  He wants to privatize most urban schools.  He has supported wholesale firings of teachers in the middle of a labor dispute in Rhode Island, signaling a green light for other districts.  He has advocated taking away local governance for urban schools but not for the lighter skinned areas of the country.  This, all in the name of “reform.”

The big question is how much resistance will there be and will the NEA, AFT and others endorse the President in 2012 even though he has clearly betrayed them?  My bets on endorsement.

CHRISTOPHER FONS is a Milwaukee Public School teacher. He can be reached at fonscy@yahoo.com


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