President Obama’s 2010 back-to-school address is notable largely for lack of controversy. Apparently, by now most Republican pols have gotten the word: psst, on education, he’s on our side! The message—if you can call it that—(noses to the grindstone, kiddies!) was deliberately free of any content that could be directly related to the upcoming midterm elections. In stark contrast to last year’s hoopla, this year’s talk wasn’t even covered by many major newspapers.
The speech didn’t just steer clear of the midterms—it downplayed Obama’s own education initiatives, and his controversial education secretary, present at the speech, was only mentioned in the introduction. Anything about policy or funding—the unpopular “signature” program, Race to the Top? Not a word. It’s usual for the location for these sorts of things to signal a reference to the pol’s accomplishments, but this time nothing about the chosen location resonates with any Obama-Duncan initiative.
The meaning of these silences? Widespread rejection of his policies, for one thing.
For another: Beltway observers point to the same-day defeat of D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, who tied his political fortunes to teacher-bashing schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. No one watching the D.C. mayoral contest can deny that Fenty bet his reelection on Rhee, and that Rhee’s policies are indistinguishable from Obama and Duncan’s.
The fact is, as the recent Gallup poll I discussed in my last entry made crystal clear: across the country, public-school parents like their schools. Parents like their kids’ teachers—and trust them, not Arne Duncan, and not corporate education profiteers, with their futures.
In one of the most under-reported education stories last spring, in the poorest areas of Los Angeles, parents were given the chance to vote for Duncan-style charter schools under tough management with non-union faculty. Guess what?
Against all odds, at every one of the locations where they had the choice, parents universally chose schools run by cooperatives of unionized district schoolteachers. The vote wasn’t close—87 percent of the vote went to schoolteacher-led proposals.
Don’t misunderstand: The district wanted to give management of the schools to the charters, but the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that they didn’t dare.
Conclusion? Parents aren’t stupid, and they haven’t fallen for cheap empire-on-the-decline theatrics—you know, Duncan and Obama playing Caligula of the schools, howling “fire them all!“ Nor are they sold on the xenophobic “keeping up with furriners’ test scores” fear-mongering.
Most parents don’t know much about other people’s schools—so worry about them, given the tripe they hear from pols and the newspapers-slash-education-corporations.
But they’ve informed themselves about the schools their own children attend, and the teachers who work there. They like their kids’ schools and teachers. They prefer teachers in charge of curriculum—even in charge of the schools themselves.
According to a recent Time poll backing up the Gallup results, they think teachers are deeply underpaid, underappreciated, and undersupported. Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to recruit and retain talent in the teaching profession. And they’re voting with the teachers, against management. (Interestingly Time didn’t publish most of the poll’s results.)
So what does that mean for secretary Duncan?
The activists for the next national day of action, October 7th, have drawn a target on his back, demanding “Fire Duncan!” on their promotional materials.
And it’s kinda interesting that the administration is trying out Jill Biden as the new face of its education initiatives.
Even so, I wouldn’t bet on a departure before the midterms. That would just draw attention to two years of failed policy. But perhaps a nice, quiet, spring 2011 exit? With a new appointee named in time for the Obama high school commencement address in June? Hmm… any thoughts for a Duncan replacement?
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