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The Progressive

Arne Duncan’s Misguided Push for Competitiveness

This week U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is on a three-day tour of the Midwest promoting college accessibility programs. On Wednesday he passed through Wisconsin and stopped at Madison East High School for a “Town Hall” meeting.

The meeting was held in a corner of the gym and was attended by about two hundred students, a couple dozen East High staff members, local elected officials, a dozen or so members of the press, employees of non-profit “partners” of the school district, and a few invited parents. Members of the public who showed up for the event were turned away at the door.

According to a member of Duncan’s staff, East High was selected as a stop due to the strong college readiness program supported by public-private partnerships. She was referring to the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination)/TOPS (Teens of Promise) program which targets “least-served students in the academic middle” for elective college readiness courses and provides mentoring, summer, and extra-curricular programming. This is the centerpiece of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s plan to reduce the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Competition in the educational and economic global marketplace was the recurring theme of Duncan’s remarks. He spoke with urgency about the loss of American competitiveness in public education, mentioning that the U.S. ranked 16th in the world for high school graduation rates. Twice Duncan listed China, India, Singapore and South Korea as countries with public education systems that graduate a higher percentage of students than the U.S. does.

After a while, Duncan sounded more like the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than the Secretary of Education.

“We have two million high-skill jobs that we can’t fill because employers can’t find the employees they’re looking for,” he said. In an answer to one student’s question about the Dream Act, which would ease access to college for students coming from families who do not have proper immigration documents, Duncan said he supported it and added, “We can’t leave all that talent on the sidelines. They’re going to be job creators some day.”

So much for public education as the way to prepare children for life as informed, active citizens in a democratic society. In the 21st century, American public education is all about churning out cogs for a global economic machine based on unsustainable production of consumer goods, weapons, military equipment, and a financial house of cards on the verge of collapse.

Duncan went on to describe Department of Education plans to increase funding for Pell grants and the new Income Based Repayment program that spreads student loan payments out over a longer period of time based on income level and family size. He didn’t mention that people who participate in that program end up paying much more interest to the lender.

He also promoted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that wipes out the remaining student loan debt for a person after they have worked for ten years in “public service.” Duncan misspoke a few times saying it was for people who worked in the public sector, but the actual provisions of the program cover anyone working at any level of government, in any kind of 501(c)(3) organization, or any “private, non-profit organization (that is not a labor union or a partisan political organization) that provides one or more of the following services:

Emergency management

Military service

Public safety

Law enforcement

Public interest law services

Early childhood education (including licensed or regulated health care, Head Start, and state-funded pre-kindergarten)


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Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly

Public health

Public education

Public library services

School library or other school-based services

These services have historically been provided by local, state or federal government agencies, but under the Obama administration, their privatization is already being planned for.

We are accustomed to early childhood education and public interest law services being provided by private, non-profit organizations, but military service, law enforcement and emergency management? And what does the “public” in public health, education and library services even mean if they are not run by public institutions overseen by democratically elected governance structures?

These were some of the questions being asked by a group of two dozen protesters outside of East High School before the event. They were demonstrating against Arne Duncan’s promotion of private choice and charter schools, and accountability programs that punish teachers based on the standardized test scores of their students. His stint as Chicago Public Schools CEO was marked by the closing of dozens of neighborhood schools, mass firings of teachers, and the gutting of democratically elected Local School Councils.

A statement from the group For All Madison Students reads, “Public schools, locally controlled, are a cornerstone of our democracy. Private interests, aided by the Federal Government, are attempting to supplant local control and to transfer public funding to privately run schools, transforming them into corporate-owned test prep factories.”

Dr. Todd Price pointed out that Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top competition for federal funds demands that school districts have better results and more accountability through standardized testing in a context of slashed state aids for schools. Price asked a member of Duncan’s staff, “How can you make the kids swim faster when there’s no water in the pool?”

While Duncan lamented the slashing of state and local school district education budgets, he said that there wasn’t much the Federal government could do to help, apart from expanding student loan programs for college. In a press conference following the event I asked him about the persistent under-funding of federally mandated special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Duncan insisted that the Obama administration has increased special education funding in every budget.

According to an analysis by the Council for Exceptional Children, it may be true that the raw number of dollars has increased slightly, but the needs of students are increasing at a much higher rate, so the percentage of funding provided to school districts for special education services by the federal government is remaining flat or decreasing.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney at Disability Rights Wisconsin said, "Duncan was not strong on special education in Chicago, and disability advocates were disappointed with his appointment as Obama’s Secretary of Education. He has not shown great leadership on this issue while in office."

But for Duncan and his boss, whose eyes are on the prize of being number one in the world for high school graduation rates by the year 2020, those kids with special needs who may never go to college become irrelevant and invisible. In the Race to the Top, there are bound to be a whole lot of losers stuck at the bottom.

Rebecca Kemble

Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.

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