The Secretary of Education Deform moves on

October 20, 2015

Mark Friedman reports on the destructive legacy of Education Secretary Arne Duncan--and the equally awful resume of the man Barack Obama named to replace him.

WHEN ARNE Duncan announced that he would be stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Education this December, two words crossed the minds of thousands of supporters of public schools across the country: "good" and "riddance."

For the past seven years, Duncan has made the Obama White House the national headquarters for the movement promoting what critics refer to as "corporate school reform": a neoliberal agenda of austerity, privatization and union busting via charter schools, merit pay and tying teacher evaluations and school closures to standardized testing.

Unfortunately for the many parents, teachers and community organizations that would have liked to celebrate Arne's exit, Barack Obama quickly announced that Duncan would be replaced by John King, a former charter school director who is most famous for provoking the largest test boycott U.S. history during his time as New York state education commissioner--with his ham-fisted imposition of the Common Core curriculum and high-stakes standardized tests that go with it.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan (right) visits a classroom with Barack Obama
Arne Duncan while he was still CEO of Chicago schools, with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama

When Duncan was first appointed Secretary of Education in 2008, the national media referred to him as a "compromise choice" who could bring together teachers' unions with anti-union corporate reformers. But public education advocates in Chicago were already familiar with Duncan's record as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

"Duncan is being portrayed in the national media as a school administrator who had a 'good' relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union," wrote Jesse Sharkey, then a Chicago school teacher and now vice president of the CTU, in Socialist Worker. Sharkey continued:

The truth is quite different. Duncan pursued anti-labor policies by pushing nonunion charter and contract schools. He also imposed test-oriented, competitive schemes that force schools to close if they can't raise test scores above a certain level.

Yet he failed to implement the kinds of changes that really would improve student performance--such as smaller class sizes and expanded facilities to end overcrowding. Instead, special education teachers were laid off and budgets squeezed.

As Education Secretary, Duncan took his Chicago plan to the national stage with Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion federal initiative consisting of federal grants designed to make states compete with each other to push privatization efforts, wrapped up in the rhetoric of "innovation and reform."

Under Duncan's watch, the Department of Education became a "hub of a network of policy advocates," as Sherman Dorn and Amanda U. Potterton put it in a recent Huffington Post article:

These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations, an approach that Berkeley education professor Janelle Scott has termed "venture philanthropy."

UNDER DUNCAN'S leadership, the Obama administration has led a bipartisan push to privatize education under the constant threat of austerity--most specifically, in urban public schools.

This same sector has also faced the advancement of charter schools in the name of "choice" and attempts to decimate teachers' unions. Duncan has been deeply implicated in this corporate effort to transform public education into an institution increasingly dominated by big business, all while cynically manipulating the language of civil rights, equality and opportunity for working-class communities of color.

By all accounts, Duncan's lowlight came in January of 2010 when he referred to Hurricane Katrina as "the best thing to happen to the education system New Orleans."

The "reforms" that Duncan callously praised in the New Orleans school system post-Katrina included an open effort to dismantle the teachers' union, the near-complete charterization of the city schools and the blatant disregard of community input and protest.

Across the country, Duncan's corporate reform policies have pushed the morale of teachers to a dangerously low point. According to a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association, 78 percent of teachers say they are physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day, and more than one in five African American teachers plan to leave the profession next year.

However, the past few years have also seen the growth of organized resistance against the forces of privatization.

The Chicago teachers' strike of 2012 sent a strong message to both Duncan and his former White House colleague-turned-mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel that teachers, students and parents could unite against union busting and corporate reform schemes.

Meanwhile, the rebellion against high-stakes standardized tests aligned with the Common Core curriculum has been growing each year--last April, over 200,000 students in New York state, more than one in six statewide, refused to take the English Language Arts test.

Just last month the Seattle Education Association led a strike that wrote another meaningful chapter in the struggle against Duncan's policies, winning the creation of contractual race and equity teams to identify and combat issues of institutional racism in Seattle at the school-based level.

As these struggles gave voice to the rising discontent against corporate education reform, Duncan himself became a target of protest. Thousands signed petitions to "Dump Arne Duncan" and delegates to the 2014 National Education Association passed a resolution calling for his resignation.

This past July, education scholar Diane Ravitch compiled a list of Duncan's terrible policies, concluding that "it will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan's policies have inflicted on public education."

IT WOULD be nice to see Duncan's stepping down as a sign that the Obama administration might be softening its hardline privatizing agenda in the wake of growing resistance.

The appointment of John King, however, shows instead that the president is sticking to the politics of neoliberal education.

As education commissioner in New York, King made himself public enemy number one for tens of thousands of teachers and parents with his signature implementation of pernicious shifts in teacher evaluation and the roll-out of Common Core Standards, a dynamic which eventually led to his resignation.

In order to avoid a confirmation fight over a federal nominee in the Senate, Obama has put forward King to serve in an acting capacity for the rest of his administration.

Obama's determination to replace one unpopular education secretary with an even more unpopular one should throw some cold water on those establishment liberal commentators who have been praising the president's alleged progressive turn in the late stages of his time in office.

Duncan and King share a fierce dedication to the remaking of education in a corporate mold. Both embrace an undemocratic methodology that frequently employs caustic dismissal of criticism from below and sees democratic governance as a hindrance to effective education policy.

As was the case under Arne Duncan, it will be important for supporters of public education to keep organizing and preparing for future struggles against John King. The future of another generation of schools depends on it.

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