My expectations for what the President would say about public education in the State of the Union message were low. After all, I have not once noticed any recent shifting away from a public school strategy that emphasizes competition, standardized testing, and sanctions for school teachers and for so-called failing schools.
President Obama’s so-called school reform policies have closed schools across the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities, promoted privatized charter schools as the alternative, and emphasized the need to grade school teachers on their children’s test scores.
In contrast, I believe our society’s highest priority for education ought to be investing in improving public schools in poor communities and creating incentives for states to equalize their investments, for it is true that our reliance on local funding for education ensures that the most public money is spent year after year on the children in wealthy suburbs where there is lots of property to tax.
Even so, I found the President’s comments in the State of the Union disheartening. I was sad to hear him brag once again about his Race to the Top program that takes money from the Title I formula—a centerpiece of the fifty-year-old War on Poverty—to fund a state-by-state grant competition with winners and losers. Much of the money that went to the winning states remains unspent, there is some question about whether the programs have made a difference, and more states and school districts have been losers in this competition than winners. The pithiest critique of the Department of Education’s grant competitions comes from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who defends public education’s mission to leave no child behind: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
I would like to have heard even a bit of evidence that the President has paid attention to angry parents—like those in Newark just this week, and in Chicago and Philadelphia—whose schools are being closed through one of the turnaround strategies being prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education.
My problem is that I get so mad about President Obama’s speeches on education that I am unable to respond. This time, however, there is a profound critique from Valerie Strauss in this column published in the Washington Post. I urge you to read it.