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Arne Duncan's Attack on Los Angeles Public Teachers Shows He Doesn't Care About Real Student Needs

Public education is a right. But the former secretary of education has treated it like—at best—an afterthought

People rally in the streets of downtown in the pouring rain during a United Teachers Los Angeles strike on January 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Teachers from the country's second-biggest school district have gone on strike after weeks of negotiations for more pay and smaller class sizes went nowhere. (Photo: Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)

Literally tens of thousands of Los Angeles public schoolteachers and support staff are on strike this week, demanding that the wealthy elites who run LA’s school district address the desperate need for more resources and supports for their students. But just weeks before the strike began, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote an op-ed in The Hill essentially telling educators to back off their demands because there’s not enough money to fund them – even though those public school educators live in one of the wealthiest states in the nation.

Let’s be clear. Arne Duncan has never taught a day in his life. He sent his children to an elite private school with small class sizes and great resources. He landed his job as CEO of Chicago Public Schools through insider ties—where he pushed policies that hurt our public school students’ access to the very same resources his own children had. He’s pushed endlessly for school privatization, and he’s been a national proponent of the teacher blame game as a way to dodge the real need for more resources for public education. Now he wants to silence Los Angeles teachers who are demanding the very supports for their students that Duncan’s children received—in a state with the fifth largest economy on the planet.

"We need the opposite of what [Arne] Duncan brought to the table in Chicago and what he proposes in Los Angeles."

LA teachers know what their students need: smaller class sizes, more staff for special education and bilingual education, and the resources and wrap-around supports that allow low-income students of color to thrive as life-long learners and productive adults. Duncan has instead promoted the opposite, by starving neighborhood public schools, promoting privatization and austerity, and purging Black educators from our classrooms.

Public education is a right. But Duncan has treated it like—at best—an afterthought, and has promoted policies for years that undermine rather than support strong neighborhood public schools. He has zero credibility with parents, educators and community residents who care about equity for all public students for a reason: he’s indifferent to the needs of their students.

He also essentially lies by omission about the real dynamics behind the struggle for the soul of public education in Los Angeles. Duncan ignores the toxic impact of right-wing tax policy on Los Angeles’ Black and Latinx students. He conveniently fails to mention Eli Broad or the Broad Foundation and their scheme to orchestrate the mass privatization of Los Angeles public schools. Instead, Duncan says the union should ‘cooperate’ more with the very management that is seeking to undercut public schools through mass charter expansion.

That mirrors his statement almost a decade ago that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was the ‘best thing’ to happen to New Orleans’ public schools, because it opened the ground for mass charter privatization. As in Chicago under Duncan and his successors, privatization in New Orleans has slashed the number of Black teachers, and more than ten years on, New Orleans’ Black working class parents, students and residents charge that the experiment has failed them. Duncan’s policies profit private operators – and undermine parent voice, public accountability and the educational needs of students.

And just as Duncan regularly shortchanged CPS by refusing to identify and raise progressive sources of revenue for our schools, he massively expanded selective enrollment schools for well-off white students. He continued those policies as education czar in the nation’s capital, to the detriment of school districts across the nation.

The educational policies that Duncan put in motion in Chicago and pushed in Washington have helped drive out thousands of Black families from cities like Chicago, where families struggle to find stable schools for their children at the same time they confront racist, classist city policies in housing, policing and economic development.

"We need an end to the failed school privatization experiment. And we need respect for the voices of parents and educators who are sick of being shortchanged by the political elites that Duncan serves."

As a central architect of Chicago’s disastrous school closure experiment, Duncan was CEO during the first wave of massive charter expansion in Chicago – forcing neighborhood public schools that had been under-resourced for decades into brutal educational hunger games that have left neighborhood schools starved for resources. As US Education Secretary, he promoted the misnamed ‘Race to the Top’ program, publicly blaming teachers for the dire consequences of racist school funding practices and endless austerity. He’s dismissed class size as an issue—an excuse to purge thousands of Black public educators in Chicago, at a time when a growing body of research shows that our schoolchildren need more, not fewer, educators of color.

We need the opposite of what Duncan brought to the table in Chicago and what he proposes in Los Angeles. We need smaller class sizes, respect for veteran teachers of color, progressive forms of revenue to adequately support public school students, adequate staffing for special education and bilingual education, and a school nurse in every school. We need an end to the failed school privatization experiment. And we need respect for the voices of parents and educators who are sick of being shortchanged by the political elites that Duncan serves.

Instead of asking Los Angeles teachers to shut up and accept less for their students, Duncan should be denouncing the very policies he implemented that have so profoundly harmed public education across the nation.

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Jesse Starkey

Jesse Starkey, president of the 24,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), represents the CTU on the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Executive Council, and sits on the AFT Executive Board. A member of the CTU since 1998, Jesse has been a champion of workers’ rights throughout his career, believing that the Union’s true power comes from the strength of its rank-and-file and their willingness to fight for the betterment of Chicago’s public school students, families and communities.

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