Who does Arne Duncan really appreciate?

For teacher appreciation week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter to American teachers commending us for our hard work and dedication to making a difference in children’s lives. Normally teachers would be thrilled to receive such eloquent praise, but for many of us Arne’s words rang hollow. This is because they came from a man who has applauded mass firings of teachers, has held up the most anti-teacher administrators as examples to follow, and has helped to push forward the anti-teacher corporate agenda in education throughout his career.

There have been many articulate responses to Secretary Duncan’s letter from teachers across the country. One teacher pointed out Duncan’s actions speak louder than his words. Another teacher expressed the cynicism many of us felt while reading the letter and posed a series of questions Duncan’s words provoked. The comedian’s among us turned to satire, pointing out the irony in Arne’s sudden discovery of teacher appreciation and asking us to read between the lines to find the more blunt language Arne forgot to include.

This range of responses mirrors the range of emotions I had while reading Duncan’s letter: anger at his hypocrisy, deep skepticism about his newly found respect for teachers, but also a small sense of accomplishment that education activists have been able to shift the rhetoric of education reform away from blaming teachers. However, I fear that most educators, not knowing Duncan’s sordid past, won’t be reading between the lines of his letter. What follows is a brief summary I wrote a while back about Duncan’s pre-Secretary of Education career that will hopefully make you think twice about how much appreciation he actually has for teachers:

Arne Duncan’s neoliberal remaking of the Chicago school system stands as a chilling reminder that when it comes to education policy, the Democratic Party is not too far behind its chief rival. As Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman have noted, Duncan “presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools, and fired entire school staffs.”

Duncan, who has never taught in a classroom and attended private schools all his life, has been a leading corporate-reformer in education. As Joel Spring points out in his book, Political Agendas for Education, Duncan worked as the education program coordinator at Ariel Capital Management, where a headline on a brochure for there main school, Ariel Community Academy reads, “We want to make the stock market a topic of dinner table conversation.” First graders are given $20,000 to invest in a class stock portfolio and each graduating class is supposed to return the original $20,000 to the entering first grade and donate half the profits to the school with the rest distributed amongst the graduates. Duncan quickly moved on to become an executive of the Chicago Public Schools by age 35 and its CEO at 38.

Duncan headed up the Renaissance 2010 plan established by the elite Commercial Club, a century-old Chicago institution comprised of the largest and most powerful corporations in the city. With the help of the corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearny, the Commercial Club unleashed one of the most ambitious school privatization schemes since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Renaissance 2010 called for the closing of one hundred public schools and reopening them as privatized charter schools. It was a page taken directly out of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) playbook. NCLB, passed in 2001, created a host of unattainable achievement goals measured through massive amounts of high-stakes standardized tests. Under these new unachievable targets, schools are set up to fail and when they do the federal government swoops in and “restructures” them. Like NCLB, Renaissance 2010 targeted schools that have “failed” to meet Chicago’s accountability standards as defined by high-stakes standardized tests and turned them over to non-profit and often for-profit charters.

Another integral part of the plan is to hand control over schools away from teachers, their unions, and community residents and into the hands of the business sector. At least two-thirds of the newly opened schools will be nonunion. The Commercial Club raised $25 million from the corporate sector to close public schools and reopen them under the governance of an unelected board called the New Schools for Chicago organization. The NSC is appointed by the Commercial Club and composed of leading corporate representatives and Chicago Public Schools executives. The “civic leaders” on what the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed a “shadow cabinet” include the chairs of McDonald’s Corporation and Northern Trust Bank, the retired chair of the Tribune Corporation, and the CEO of the Chicago Community Trust—a major corporate foundation.

In the absence of a hurricane to force half of the poor population out of the city, these corporate cronies have resorted to more commonplace gentrification. As Chicago Teachers for Social Justice have explained “Renaissance 2010 is not just a school plan. It is part of a much larger plan for gentrification and for moving out low-income African Americans and some Latinos from prime real estate areas, in fact from the city altogether. These are the areas where the proposed school closings are concentrated.”

Chicago has a long history of underfunding its public housing developments resulting in rotting infrastructure and chronic infestation by rodents and insects. Public housing was made into a last resort for the poorest of the poor. Beginning in the early 2000s the Chicago Housing Authority began using private contractors to tear down the public housing developments and put up new mixed-income developments that price most of the former residents out of the community. Closing down the underfunded public school in the area and opening a new charter school is the perfect way to attract a new wealthier and whiter population to the area. As Pauline Lipman, a progressive Urban Education scholar at the University of Illinois in Chicago writes:

As public housing is torn down and new condos and luxury town houses rise up, the city and the real estate developers are removing any traces of the people who once lived there. Closing the schools and then reopening them as new schools is a signal to future middle-class residents that the area is being “reborn.” This has been a frequent theme in business and school leaders’ statements in the press. When the agenda to “reinvent” Midsouth schools was first made public in the Chicago Tribune, on December 19, 2003, Terry Mazany, CEO of Chicago Community Trust and member of the planning team, described the connection between schools and development of the area this way: “[Bronzeville’s] a great physical location, so close to the lake and downtown,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance to pull something like this off. You can’t do it just with the housing and retail development. You have to get the third leg and that’s the schools.

Before he became the education secretary, Arne Duncan was an enthusiastic advocate for the Commercial Club’s scheme, privatizing Chicago public schools at a rate of about twenty schools per year. Revealing his corporate-minded orientation to schooling, Duncan told a room full of businessmen at the Commercial Club’s “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education” symposium in May of 2008, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve my portfolio.”

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  1. […] Arne Duncan, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Education, made a name for himself in Chicago by pushin…. As Secretary of Education he has touted the wholesale privatization of public schools and the breaking of the teachers’ union after Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” He applauded, along with Obama, the firing of every single teacher at Central Falls, a high poverty high school in Rhode Island. He endorsed the LA Times release of flawed, value-added-based test scores that included 6,000 elementary school teachers’ names, rankings and places of employment and led to the suicide of one teacher deemed to be “less effective.” And he has backed the most power-hungry, teacher-hating administrators, like Robert Bobb, who has helped push the Detroit public school system to the brink of financial collapse and is now asking teachers and students to pay the price. […]

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