President Obama at the National Urban League's Centennial Conference by Leticia - Tech Savvy Mama
The Obama Administration education agenda has come to be defined by a sweepstakes initiative known as "Race to the Top," which was inserted into the economic stimulus last year. This $4.35 billion contest for states starved for funding especially money for education has turned state politicians into leaders gambling on putting education experiments into play so that they can win funding from the federal government.
The "Race to the Top" program has become a vehicle for advancing the agenda for privatization of public schools and President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and others have used the initiative to ramp up rhetoric against teachers especially unions, a reality that has led to an erosion of support among unions and the civil rights movement that were allies of Obama during the 2008 election.
At the National Urban League's 100th Anniversary Convention, President Obama addressed the growing disillusionment with his education plans to carry out the "Race to the Top" program and "lift caps on charter schools and link student achievement to teacher pay":
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But I think the single most important thing we've done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top. We said--we said to states, if you are committed to outstanding teaching, to successful schools, to higher standards, to better assessments, if you're committed to excellence for all children, you will be eligible for a grant to help you attain that goal. And so far the results have been promising, and they have been powerful.
I know there's also been some controversy about Race to the Top. Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the status quo, even when the status quo isn't good. We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are. And when you try to shake things up, some people aren't happy.
Michael Klonsky, a director for the Small Schools Workshop, a nationally recognized resource for educators trying to create new small schools and learning communities, addressed this notion that civil rights groups like the National Urban League, would be for the "status quo."
"For President Obama to try and say that opposition to Race to the Top and his education policies are coming from people who want to preserve the status quo --- that's very misleading and President Obama should know better coming from Chicago that these people are not status quo people," explained Klonsky. "I include myself in this we are not status quo people. We've been fighting for the past decades to fix a broken system here in Chicago."
Klonsky added, "President Obama's statement was really directed at the civil rights movement and the main civil rights organization. And again how civil rights movement could be accused of being advocates for the status quo. I mean, even at a time when the President of the United States has been relevantly silent on issues of racial discrimination these are the groups that have been speaking out and taking a stand against the re-segregation of our schools in particular. I think the president was way off base in his status quo argument."
Klonsky agreed that many who are for privatized education are casting themselves as "revolutionaries" and casting teachers especially members of teachers' unions as people who are for the status quo because they want to keep the public in public education.
"This goes back to the Bush days. We heard the same things coming from Bush around No Child Left Behind," said Klonsky. "The conservatives and now the elite liberal corporatists have positioned themselves as revolutionaries, the radicals. And, they've staked out that territory and because really the way they see the change process is that the change is all about eliminating public space, eroding public space and replacing it with private space or what Bush called "the ownership society."
The "Ownership Society" is a model of society President Bush and other conservatives promoted and have been promoting through education reform in the past few decades. It's something that Michael Klonsky and his wife, Susan Klonsky, wrote about in their book, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.
Susan Titus, a teacher in higher education who is part of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), explained that Race to Top empowers states to do a number of things. One of those things includes the right to identify a failing school and fire all of the people who run the school.
"The system that runs the school can fire all the teachers and personnel in the school," explained Titus. Particularly in Rhode Island, where teachers were fired en masse, AFT had to come in so teachers would be rehired.