When I first heard that Arne Duncan, who hails from the charter-schools-are-great side of the educational spectrum, was going to be President Obama’s secretary of education, I figured: that’s too bad. But after all these years of Republicans, how bad can it be?
Well, pretty bad.
Duncan has discovered that he has a powerful tool to use to force some really terrible "reforms" onto school districts and states that really don’t want them. And he’s using it in a way that’s almost cruel.
See, every public school district in urban America is hurting right now. Everyone needs money; everyone’s desperate. Teachers are getting pink slips, schools are closing, class sizes are growing, programs are getting cut … and school boards and superintendents are reduced to begging for spare change to buy chalk and pencils.
And along comes Secretary Duncan with billions of dollars in grants, scraps of food for starving people and all you have to do to get some of it is adopt an agenda that blames the problems of the education system on the teachers.
Get rid of teacher seniority. Get rid of tenure. Link teacher pay to student performance, as measured by standardized tests. Approve more charter schools (which suck money out of the public school system). Just do those things and you can compete in the beauty contest called "Race to the Top" and maybe you’ll get some cash.
The New York Times Magazine had a fascinating story on this May 21. The writer, Steven Brill, marveled at how successful Duncan had been leveraging a fairly small amount of money into the most profound changes in educational policy this country has seen in 30 years. That’s because these days, school districts will do almost anything to keep the doors open.
But the problem is that the federal grants will run out, and some day the economy will recover, and maybe we’ll come to our senses and realize that government at every level should properly fund education and the damage of the Duncan reforms will be done.
I can’t blame the SFUSD, which just agreed to apply for Race to the Top money, for seeking cash everywhere. And the SFUSD application doesn’t promise anywhere near what Duncan wants, so we won’t win anyway. But at some point, somebody’s got to say: this is a bad way to run the public schools.