The lesser evil for teachers?

September 19, 2012

Rhode Island teacher Brian Chidester looks at the record of the Obama administration--and challenges the Democrats' claim to be champions of public schools.

ELECTION SEASON is upon us again. And once again, we are told that we must tremble in fear of what might happen in the event of a Republican victory. Yes, we know, we're not happy with you know who, but it will be so much worse if the other guy wins. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before.

As a teacher whose career spans the Bush and Obama administrations, I've seen this pattern time and again. What we call "lesser evilism"--the appeal to vote for the "lesser evil" among two candidates in order to prevent the victory of the "greater evil"--is the stock-in-trade of liberalism, particularly among leaders of the labor movement. It comes up every four years at least, if not more often than that. Will 2012 be different?

The classic starting point on this question for socialists is a 1967 article by Hal Draper called "Who's Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?" Draper analyzed the situation of the two-party system from within the New Deal framework--but his conclusions ring true from the neoliberal era, too, the last 40 years during which the New Deal has been all but dismantled. Draper puts it this way:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Education Secretary Arne Duncan

So besides Tweedledee-Tweedledums and besides the Lesser Evils who really are different in policy from the Greater Evils, we increasingly are getting this third type of case: the Lesser Evils who, as executors of the system, find themselves acting at every important juncture exactly like the Greater Evils, and sometimes worse. They are the product of the increasing convergence of liberalism and conservatism under conditions of bureaucratic capitalism. There never was an era when the policy of the Lesser Evil made less sense than now.

Substitute "free-market-run-amok" for "bureaucratic" in the penultimate sentence, and we could not have a more accurate analysis of the current two-party system.

The left and the social movements have to state clearly their own programs and develop their own methods in order to fight for them. When we rely on the electoral system and tailor our activity to suit politicians, we put ourselves into an impossible position, a position which requires us to give up or curtail our struggles. As Draper puts it:

What the classic case teaches is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil--this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be--but rather this: that you can't fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them.

He concludes: "The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice."

THERE HAS already been plenty of evidence presented of just how bad Mitt Romney would be for education. His campaign website makes it quite clear: he's for charter schools, high-stakes tests and teacher evaluations; merit pay schemes to destroy solidarity; and further corporate takeover of our schools. And of course, Paul Ryan's budget-cutting fanaticism would ensure an even greater financial crisis for our schools.

But it's hard to see how Barack Obama--and especially his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--is actually a lesser evil. It's what Draper said: We can find the Democrats acting at every important juncture like the greater evils, and sometimes worse. This is not a matter of rhetoric--in fact, on that score, the Democrats often sound like they are for less harsh policies--but of action. Let's review the record.

On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama spoke out against George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Teachers and our unions enthusiastically backed Obama, glad to be rid of Bush and the era of rating schools through high-stakes tests and wildly unrealistic goals and expectations.

Obama spoke to what everyone in education knew: that there was no way that we would have 100 percent of children "achieving the standard" by 2014, as the law stated; that the standardized testing mania was degrading our teaching and our students' learning; that deeming schools as "failing" was unjust and willfully ignorant of the conditions of those schools. It was fine talk.

But once in office, President Obama discarded his campaign adviser on education, Linda Darling-Hammond, in favor of Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan. Darling-Hammond is one of the most respected education researchers in the country, and her rejection was a clear indication that Obama was not serious about what he had said on the campaign trail. Instead, he hired the man who started the great wave of Chicago school closures, pushing charter schools--and students into charter schools--as hard as he could. It was clear from this that the neoliberal policies pioneered in Chicago were about to go national.

And so it was that NCLB was left intact, and not just that--the Obama-Duncan administration fed it steroids and produced Race to the Top (RTTT), legislation that dangles more education funding in front of cash-strapped state governments, but only if they passed certain "reforms."

Think about this: throughout the Bush era, the Democrats complained that NCLB--co-sponsored, by the way, by liberal icon Ted Kennedy--wasn't fully funded. Thus their slogan: Fully fund No Child Left Behind! Not: Fully fund public education! The two things were quite different, but our unions took up the Democrats' call wholeheartedly.

Obama handed over trillions of dollars to banks in the first year of his administration, but didn't bail out state governments and municipalities facing budget crises--something that would have taken a fraction of the amount of money he was giving to banks. So instead, record numbers of teachers lost their jobs, and schools cut back on programs.

But Obama could still claim he was dramatically increasing funding for public education through RTTT. The price tag for this was legislation that lifted caps on charter schools and implemented punitive teacher evaluation systems, complete with "data-collection systems" and "student achievement data" as the main component of that evaluation. RTTT allowed Obama and Duncan to pose as the champions of public education, all while attacking teachers and subjecting students to testing on a devastating new scale.

SO WHAT'S the alternative? As I write these words, 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) are on strike.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel thought he was going to bulldoze the CTU and impose his neoliberal agenda on Chicago schools. After all, his predecessor Richard Daley had been quite successful in his bid to reorganize Chicago's schools along the lines of the Chicago School of Economics.

But Obama's former chief of staff wasn't ready for the power of an organized union with a determined and radical leadership. Despite all the obstacles Rahm tried to put in their way, the Chicago teachers arrayed themselves for a massive battle. The outcome will have tremendous repercussions for the public education system and the labor movement.

By contrast, the outcome of the 2012 presidential election will have far less impact on what happens to public schools and teachers. The long and short of it is that society is changed fundamentally not by whom we elect, but by what we do, collectively, in the form of direct action to reclaim our schools.

The lesser-evil bogey is hauled out routinely for the sake of disrupting social movements for change. Our alternative is not to rely for salvation on elected officials. Our alternative is to rely on ourselves--our independent movement and our mass direct action.

Imagine a country where a popular president, elected with overwhelming support from teachers, turns on them and attacks their unions and their schools. Now imagine that in that president's home city, run by his former chief of staff, where the schools used to be run by his current basketball buddy and education secretary, the teachers stand up and say, "ENOUGH!" Now imagine that they do this not just any time, but in the midst of that president's campaign for re-election.

Suddenly, the veil is torn off, and we see the real sides in this struggle. On the one side is Rahm, Arne and Barack, backed by Bill, Eli and the Waltons. On the other side: Karen Lewis, 26,000 CTU members, 5 million teachers nationally and a movement of parent and community solidarity.

Ask yourself: Which side is Mitt on? Ask yourself: Which side are you on?

Based on an article originally published at Rhode Island Red Teacher.

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