Monday, August 17, 2009

Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts

George W. Bush cracked open the door to a federal takeover of American public schools with the unfunded mandates imposed on states through his No Child Left Behind program. Barack Obama is tearing that door off its hinges, and driving a truck through the gaping hole, by using stimulus funds to force state compliance with his own education agenda, as the New York Times reports today.

"Holding out billions of dollars as a potential windfall, the Obama administration is persuading state after state to rewrite education laws to open the door to more charter schools and expand the use of student test scores for judging teachers.

That aggressive use of economic stimulus money by Education Secretary Arne Duncan is provoking heated debates over the uses of standardized testing and the proper federal role in education, issues that flared frequently during President George W. Bush’s enforcement of his signature education law, called No Child Left Behind."

Both the Bush and Obama efforts travel under the guise of "reform." Both efforts include elements that many backers of improving education support in principle (higher testing standards and more accountability in the case of NCLB, for instance, and more charter schools in the case of Obama's No Taxpayer Left Alone program). But neither initiative serves the long-term interests of American public education, since both are unprecedented assaults on state and local control of schools.

No sector of American society that falls under federal dominance has flourished as a result. Almost everything Washington touches turns to shit, as we all know. That's reason enough to be wary of Uncle Sam's growing involvement in public education under Bush and Obama. And because federal involvement never comes without strings attached, and a hefty price tag attached, it's better in the long-run that such matters remain under state and local control.

I would like to see more charter school-averse states change their attitudes toward the alternative schools, so I might be inclined, at first blush, to applaud the Obama administration's use of stimulus funds as leverage against charter-resistant states. But because I try to think 2 or 3 moves ahead, I also anticipate that the Obama administration and its teacher union allies will eventually use this same leverage to force the unionization of charter schools, and to impose federal standards upon them, effectively robbing charter schools of the very things that make them unique, independent, effective and appealing.

Here's a hint of things to come in a related story from the Associated Press:

"Unions and their members do not oppose all charter schools, but they do want more say in how teachers are chosen. The American Federation of Teachers is actively seeking a bigger role in charter schools and has helped to unionize several."

Barack Obama's support for charter schools at first glance seems at odds with his political alliance with anti-charter school teachers' unions -- until one realizes that this administration intends to facilitate a union takeover of these schools through passage of the so-called card check law, which will make organizing the American workplace as easy as collecting enough signatures. Obama's support for charter schools is tolerated by teachers' unions because they understand that their chances of co-opting these schools will get a big boost from this union-friendly president.

That's why this backer of charter schools is skeptical of Obama actions that seem, on the surface, to be pro-school choice and pro-school reform. Beware Greeks bearing gifts. Charter schools have a better chance of remaining genuine charter schools if they are free of the federal government's -- and Barack Obama's -- smothering embrace.

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