Arne Duncan Obama Politics

John Thompson: How King’s Appointment Could Hurt Democrats in 2016

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Here are John Thompson’s reactions to the transition at the U.S. Department if Education. I am happy to welcome John’s first direct contribution to the blog. John is a historian and a history teacher. He writes frequently about current issues in education. In this post, he speculates that Acting Secretary John King will be a problem for the Democratic nominee in 2016.

“Watching President Obama’s press conference where he announced the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was déjà vu and more déjà vu and even more déjà vu all over again. I still love the president as much as I despise his test and punish school policy. And, once again, President Obama displayed his charm even as he praised the discredited Duncan and his interim replacement, John King. Obama’s knows basketball and his jokes about Duncan and b-ball were great. However, his lack of understanding of the catastrophic misrule by King was not funny.

“Even in 2007, I knew that Hillary Clinton would be a better education president, but I went to Iowa to campaign for Obama. In 2012, I worried that Duncan (or should I say Scott Walker-lite?) would cost us the reelection. Fortunately, teachers and workers in Wisconsin and Ohio did not respond to the administration’s antiunion education policies by staying at home.

“After 2013, there was no logical reason for Duncan to not recant his test-driven accountability and his devotion to school closures, charters, and micromanaging. As Politico’s Mike Grunwald reports, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel had tried to warn him that “if he didn’t bring sanity to the testing craze, everything he was doing would collapse under its own weight.” AFT President Randi Weingarten told Duncan that “this fixation on testing was a disaster. If you don’t fix this, all you’re going to hear about for the next few years is testing, testing, testing.”

“Once again, Duncan remained loyal to corporate reformers, defended their social-engineering, and invested billions of dollars on competition-driven mandates and almost nothing on science-based, win-win policies like early education and full-service community schools.

“Even as the grassroots backlash against test, sort, reward and punish grew, Duncan did no more than mumble words about over-testing, invest relative pennies in socio-emotional student supports, and imply that he would have supported school integration had it been more politically popular. Such words rang hollow as his market-driven policies put NCLB-type testing on steroids and accelerated the resegregation of schools.

“And that leads, once again, back to the question of why President Obama would go along with the corporate reformers who see themselves as righteous crusaders against unions and demonize educators who reject their competition-driven policies. Nobody denies that King, like Duncan, is sincere. They are such nice guys that I really wanted to believe King’s words about the need for socio-economic integration. As was explained in Chalkbeat NY, Richard Kahlenberg says that “King could sway districts to take steps on integration even with relatively minor incentive programs.”

“But, I doubt we will hear more than sweet talk from him on how “schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country.” After all, King is deeply rooted in the “No Excuses” charter school value system and nothing is a better recipe for increased resegregation than that pedagogy. What parents, if they had a choice, would embrace his behavioristic charters and the neo-Plessyism that results?

“In another “déjà vu all over again” moment, I’m torn by the destructive effect the King nomination could have on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Although I’m still undecided, I very much hope that the Democratic campaign can avoid circular firing squads. Any Democrat’s comment on the transition from Duncan to King will anger key constituencies. After all, education reform consciously pitted liberal versus liberal, generation versus generation, and civil rights advocate against civil rights advocate. It is Hillary who will most often have to face those questions.

“I can understand why the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association chose to make early endorsements of Hillary. I also respect the anger of educators who remind us of her long friendship with one of the most destructive and anti-union corporate reformers, Eli Broad. I cannot understand why a Democratic president would dump this on the plate of Democratic presidential candidates. I doubt they fully played out the political chess game, and how the King appointment comes at a bad time for Hillary, but how there are plenty of scenarios where Bernie or Biden could be hurt.

“Educators are energized. We see the no-longer-secret Broad plan to charterize Los Angeles school system for what it is – an all-out attack on teachers unions and the idea that the public and not the Billionaires Boys’ Club should run our schools. It was inevitable that this $500 million dollar assault on our educational values would provoke a backlash and at least stall Hillary’s momentum in the wake of the NEA endorsement. Now is not the time when she wants to face questions on which side is she on – corporate donors and King supporters (and funders) or teachers, parents, and unions.

“King may not be well-known outside of New York, but that state is hardly a political backwater. Moreover, it may be the strongest bastion of the Opt Out movement – a grassroots campaign that was prompted by high stakes testing, Common Core, and the unforced turnovers committed by Duncan and King.

“The national, non-education press may not be fully aware of the causes and the extent this anger, but there are plenty of educators and patrons who will inform them about the Duncan/King fiascoes, and the reasons why their test and punish policies are so despised.

“I will focus on just one – the pain caused by these nice guys as they personalized policy differences. Duncan ridiculed sincere opponents as “white suburban moms” who are afraid “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.” King might be just as sincere, but that doesn’t make his slanders any more palatable to those of us who dedicated our lives to teaching poor children of color. We are primarily fighting for the right of our kids to get the same respectful, holistic engaging instruction as affluent kids. King, however, dismisses our concerns as excuse-making and low expectations.

“King, like Michelle Rhee, Scott Walker, John Deasy, Eli Broad and, yes, Arne Duncan, dismisses educators who disagree with him as putting “adult interests” over our kids. So, I believe the national press will soon be learning why we teachers are so offended by the King appointment. I just hope that Clinton, Sanders and, perhaps, Biden are not hurt by it.”

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