Duncan’s twisted vision for our schools

February 4, 2010

Arne Duncan is showing more backbone in taking on teachers and kids than the Obama administration did with insurance companies, says Danny Katch.

HURRICANE KATRINA was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," according to Arne Duncan, who unfortunately is not a diabolical Hollywood villain but the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Four years after the hurricane, there are barely half as many children in New Orleans public schools. That's 30,000 mostly African American boys and girls who have been driven from their homes, possibly permanently.

Besides this easily being the Cheneyist thing anybody in the Obama administration has said, Duncan's words are so striking because he claims he thinks of his education policies as "the civil rights issue of our generation."

But then, Duncan has always been a strange type of civil rights leader. On the day he claimed to speak out for this generation's civil rights issue, he was the "CEO" of the Chicago public schools, which is the fourth most segregated school system in the country, according to a study sponsored by the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Education Secretary Arne Duncan

It's not just Chicago. All around the country, schools are about as racially integrated today as they were before Brown v. the Board of Education. Schools named after Martin Luther King are often exclusively non-white. This is like having a George Washington High with Redcoats for teachers.

There are no rewards in Duncan's "Race to the Top" program for states that desegregate their schools. To Duncan, however, segregation is so "last generation." If he were to give a Martin Luther King-style civil rights speech, it might go like this:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and give an equal opportunity to some of its children.

I have a dream that from the streets of Harlem to the hills of Georgia, children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by their score on a test...which is based on the school they attend...which is based on the color of their skin.

I have a dream that our nation will have enough educated workers to meet our needs without having to actually educate everybody.

And finally, I have a dream that our most disadvantaged children--the little girl coming to school from a homeless shelter, the boy from Mexico just learning our language, the children struggling with autism--I have a dream that these children will just go away because they are very poor investments.

THE NEW York Times reports that Duncan is planning "sweeping change" to the notorious No Child Left Behind law pushed through by George W. Bush.

Like many things in the age of Obama, this sounds great until you keep reading. "Right now, most federal money goes out in formulas, so schools know how much they'll get, and then use it to provide services for poor children," Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, who attended a recent meeting with administration officials, told the Times. "The department thinks that's become too much of an entitlement."

Amen. If you've ever spent time in a school with poor children, the first thing that strikes you is their sense of entitlement: "I don't want to climb five flights of stairs to get to my 7th period class," they whine about the constantly broken elevator. "I have asthma."

As Jennings continued: "[Obama and Duncan] want to upend that scheme by making states and districts pledge to take actions the administration considers reform, before they get the money."

Darn right, kids! You don't get any money from this administration before you change your failing ways. Just ask AIG. Or the Pentagon. Or Joe Biden.

But we all know that children aren't the real villains. Teachers are. The thing that's really insidious about teachers is they're so committed to ruining education that, unlike many school administrators, they devote their whole lives to the field. Well, no more. The heart of the Duncan's plan is to "evaluate teachers based on student test data."

Using test scores to pay and fire teachers is such a good idea that this method should be applied to all professions. Firefighters should be judged according to the percentage of the fire that they put out--tough luck if you were driving the truck. Doctors should be paid based on survival rates, so when EMTs rush a multiple gunshot wound victim into the emergency groom, they'll find everyone out for a coffee break.

The other main element of the new policy is charter schools--lots of them. Teachers don't like charter schools in the same stubborn, unreasoning way that 11-year-olds don't like sweatshops.

But charters have proven teachers wrong on one thing. At least some teachers in their darkest moments have looked at their students and thought that if they could just get rid of that one kid--usually the one running a dice game in the corner of the classroom--the entire class would be better off. But charter schools have shown that you can exclude all those kids, as well as the ones with special learning needs or parents who can't spend 20 hours a week at the school, and still not show improvement over regular schools.

Hopefully, Duncan's education "reforms" will go the way of the health care bill. But don't count on it. The Obama administration might show more backbone taking on teachers and kids than it did with the insurance companies. After all, this is a question of civil rights.

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