BY CINDY JAQUITH
The Barack Obama administration’s “Blueprint for Reform” of the No Child Left Behind Act takes another step toward more school closures, firings of teachers, undermining seniority provisions and union contracts, and privatization of schools.
In his March 13 radio address Obama put his plan in the framework of U.S. employers’ competition with capitalist rivals abroad for profits. “The nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow,” he said, noting “we’ve now fallen behind most wealthy countries in our high school graduation rates.” His solution: increase competition between school districts for scarce funds, between teachers over who gets hired or fired, and between individual families for which students get into better schools, all while maintaining education as an institution that reinforces the social relations and privileges of capitalism.
The National Education Association, one of the two major teachers unions, announced it “cannot support the plan as released.” The American Federation of Teachers charged the “reforms” amount to “scapegoating” teachers for the crisis of the U.S. education system.
The White House presents the “blueprint” as eliminating problems in the No Child Left Behind law, signed by former president George Bush in 2002. It has been criticized for forcing schools to focus on math and reading scores to the detriment of social studies, humanities, sciences, and other subjects. Actually, the Obama bill will tighten availability of federal funds for education and deepen the gap between schools in middle-class areas and those in working-class neighborhoods, forcing school districts to compete against each other for funds.
The blueprint states, “We will support the expansion of high-performing public charter schools and other autonomous public schools,” referring to those that receive public funds but are managed by private companies.
It calls for school districts to “meaningfully differentiate teachers and principals by effectiveness” and encourages “differentiated compensation,” code words for ignoring wage and seniority provisions in union contracts.
School programs that “do more with fewer resources” will be prioritized for better funding because they “increase efficiency”—presumably by laying off personnel, increasing workloads, and cutting back on materials.
Using new criteria devised by the Department of Education, the plan calls for dividing schools into “Reward” and “Challenge” categories. Challenge schools are ones in the lowest 5 percent as ranked by performance.
Challenge schools will be required to institute one of four programs to continue receiving funds. They are the same as the “Race to the Top” criteria the White House is using to decide what school districts receive federal “stimulus” funds.
One option is “Transformation.” The school board must fire the principal and “implement new governance and flexibility.”
The second option is “Turnaround.” The principal and at least 50 percent of the teachers must be fired. At the high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the entire teaching staff has just been fired in accordance with “Turnaround.” Obama praised the move. At six schools in Boston all teachers must reapply for their jobs, with only 50 percent expected to be rehired.
The third option is “Restart.” The school is placed under private management, either as a charter school or another privately managed institution, which determines its own curriculum, salaries, and hours.
The fourth option is “Closure”—the school is closed down.
The blueprint contains a lot of rhetoric about broadening education beyond math and reading, and improving schools in “high-need” districts, but the reality for these schools is the opposite. The Board of Education in Kansas City voted March 10 to close nearly half the city’s schools, which serve a predominantly Black, working-class student body.
In New York City, the government is proposing to rapidly phase out free transit passes for students, which will narrow the available schools many working-class youth can attend. In New Jersey, three hours of after-school programming each day are being eliminated. The heavily subsidized programming offered tutoring and recreation, as well as freeing up parents to work during that time period. Most of those using the programs were Blacks and Latinos, according to the New York Times.