Obama’s Privatizing Agenda for Education?


Union-busting, school-privatizing, school-militarizing Arne Duncan is Obama’s pick for Education Secretary

By Betsy Schonitzer

President-elect Obama has appointed Chicago Public School CEO (yes, his title was CEO), Arne Duncan, to the position of Education Secretary in the next White House.  Does this represent “hope” or “change”?  Or, is this a betrayal of public education?

Arne Duncan as CEO of Chicago Public Schools practiced a market-based approach to “reforming” the educational system, including outsourcing and privatizing public schools, militarizing public schools, greatly narrowing the curriculum and use of the “No Child Left Behind Program.”


During the time that Arne Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, public schools have been turned over to private operators – usually in the form of charter and contract schools – at a rate of about 20 per year.   Privatizing schools results in union-busting since charter and contract schools operate union-free.  As one of the last major district initiatives under schools chief Duncan, it was announced this month that 6 Chicago public schools will be closed in a move that could affect as many as 25 schools through closings and “turnarounds” (firing all the faculty and privatizing the school).  At a recent public hearing, parents, teachers and community leaders, accused the district of closing schools only to reopen them as schools under private control and without the same accountability as regular district schools.  Parents expressed outrage that now that classroom sizes were smaller, 20 rather than 40 students in a classroom, school authorities want to close the schools.


Chicago Public School teacher Jesse Sharkey states, “Duncan has resuscitated some of the worst ‘school reform’ ideas of the 1990’s, like firing all the teachers in low-performing schools (called ‘turnarounds’).  At the same time, he’s eliminated many Local School Councils (LCSs) and made crucial decisions without public input . . . Charter schools and test-score driven school ‘choice’ have been watchwords of Duncan’s rule in Chicago” (Sharkey 2008).

Under Duncan, public school teachers in highly segregated poor Black and Latino neighborhoods were made to feel enormous pressure to gear instruction toward standardized testing.   Schools with poor test scores were characterized as ‘failures’ and suffered budgetary consequences or even closed.  This resulted in instruction being geared toward rote memorization as opposed to democratic or critical thinking.   It encouraged students to follow rules and be docile.  There is an excellent letter written by renowned educator and author Alfie Kohn in the December 29th issue of The Nation on this topic, “Beware School Reformers”, The Nation, December 10, 2008 by Alfie Kohn.

Duncan kept a variety of differentiated programs in the Chicago schools:   a small elite, highly selective program which received better resources and had predominantly white students and another category, which utilized scripted direct instruction with a vocational emphasis, for mostly poor black and Latino students.  This has resulted in racialized educational tracking of students.

Another type of school highly supported by Duncan is the military academy.  Chicago has the most militarized school system in the country with schools representing every branch of the armed services.   These military academies are directly run by the armed forces.   Students learn military tactics, history and military discipline.   There has also been a great extension of Junior ROTC programs to over 50% of the city’s high schools. 
The purpose of JROTC is clear, in the words of former Defense Secretary General William Cohen, JROTC is “one of the best recruiting services that we could have.”  Many Chicago schools also offer an after-school “Middle School Cadet Corp” run by military personnel for children age 11-14.  Military personnel in this program ultimately report to the Pentagon.  Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” all students who do not “opt out” have their records turned over to the military.  These records assist military recruiters with targeting students for recruitment.  These militarized schools serve poor minority students replacing inquiry with fascist discipline and preparing students to be fodder in continuing wars for empire.  Sadly, the militarization of schools is replacing earlier educational philosophy of education as enlightenment and truth.  In short, it turns schools into places for training soldiers.

These policies of privatization and militarization of Chicago schools have been touted as “reform” but the reality is that this has produced a two-tiered educational system with greater inequalities.  The privatization of public schools shows a shift toward the voucher system envisioned by Milton Friedman and neoconservatives.  I’m a teacher and any Chicago public school teacher that I have spoken has told me how bad Duncan has been for the Chicago school system.  When Chicago public schools are privatized, all the teachers are fired.  New teachers are hired and there is no effort to hire minority teachers.  The new teachers are also non-union and young.  Older teachers in the Chicago public school system tend to lose their jobs - they have higher salaries because of the length of time they have been teaching.

The selection of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary shows a lot about the corporate, conservative direction that Obama is going in. He never voted to repeal the hated “No Child Behind Act” and he never sent his children to a public school in Chicago.  Duncan and Obama are cronies.  They play basketball together.   Duncan is also close friends with one of Obama’s closest friends and sponsors – the investment capitalist John W. Rogers, founder of Ariel Capital Management Inc.  Aside from friendship, Duncan represents the corporate and military friendly agenda of Barack Obama.

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