Obama’s Race to the Bottom


Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty(rafflaw)-Guest Blogger

On the eve of President Obama’s Inauguration for his second term, I thought it might be useful to look more closely at one of his policies that is not working for students or parents. I am referring to his educational policy, better know by its marketing name, Race to the Top.  This “quaint” title for his corporate backed privatizing plan hides the negative impact it has had in the schools themselves.  It is has led to school closings and teacher firings for the sole purpose of school districts being eligible for  the Race to the Top grants from the Federal government! 

While this foundation backed type of “reform” was started by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind program, President Obama has taken the No Child Left Behind program to even greater lows.  “The current wave of school closings is latest result of bipartisan educational policies which began with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and have kicked into overdrive under the Obama administration’s Race To The Top. In Chicago, the home town of the president and his Secretary of Education, the percentage of black teachers has dropped from 45% in 1995 to 19% today. After winning a couple skirmishes in federal court over discriminatory firings in a few schools, teachers have now filed a citywide class action lawsuit alleging that the city’s policy of school “turnarounds” and “transformations” is racially discriminatory because it’s carried out mainly in black neighborhoods and the fired teachers are disproportionately black.”  Common Dreams

In order to understand how misguided this Race to the Top is, we need to take a moment to review just how does it work and how do schools and school districts “win” these federal grants. I apologize for the length of the following quotation, but it is necessary to understand how destructive this program can be.

“Secretary Duncan at his side, President Obama introduced Race To The Top, drawn up by the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Eli Broad, Boeing, Walton Family and other foundations. Under Race To The Top states and school districts are forced to bid against each other for many of the same education dollars they used to receive as a matter of course. The winning districts are those who apply Race To The Top’s four official solutions to their so-called “failing schools.”

Race To The Top’s four federally mandated “solutions,” which are never spelled out by corporate media news outlets, are “school transformations,” “school turnarounds,” “school restarts,” and “school closures.”

Race to the Top defines a school transformation,” its first remedy, as firing the principal and up to 50% of teachers, replacing them with temps and newbies, hiring expensive consultants, often the same folks who drafted Race To The Top guidelines or their cronies, to redesign curriculum and personnel policies. “Transformed” schools tie teachers jobs to test scores (that’s what caused the national epidemic of cheating scandals) lengthening school days with no extra pay, cutting wages & benefits and of course lots more costly and useless tests.

Race To The Top calls its second remedy “school turnaround.” Turnarounds are exactly the same as school transformations, with high priced “run the school like a business” consultants, increased reliance on standardized tests, sanctions for teachers and all new hires sourced from Teach For America type agencies, except that transformations fire up to 50% of school staff, but to be called a turnaround schools must fire at least 50% of school staff.

School restarts,” are the third Race To The Top solution. In a “restart” you close the public school and reopen a new school with new staff and the same connected consultants used for transformations and turnarounds, but all under the management of a private corporation. In other words, you close the public school and open a charter school in the same building. Charters of course can use public money to hire even less qualified teachers, pick and choose the students it serves, and often to generate handsome private profits.

Race To The Top ‘s fourth remedy isschool closure. ” You fire the staff, padlock the school doors and let families take their chances on the free market, or find another public school if they can.

The states and school districts quickest to carry out the most transformations, turnarounds, restarts and school closings are the ones who get to keep or increase their levels of federal funding. Those who drag their feet lose federal education dollars. That’s why it’s a race, but not exactly to the top.”
Common Dreams

That is a lot of information to digest, but the bottom line is that school districts have to fire teachers and close schools to increase their chances of getting the much-needed federal education dollars!  Race to the Top takes the Bush inspired teach to the test nonsense and includes the requirement that school districts must “turnaround” schools by firing teachers and/or closing schools many times in areas that can least afford the closing of any public schools.  Why would President Obama and Sec. Duncan push this kind of abhorrent policy?  Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is that by firing teachers and forcing schools to close serves the privatization model pushed by these very same foundations and corporations.

Is it a good thing that inner city schools are closed and that qualified and experienced minority teachers are replaced by inexperienced teachers in the schools that remain open? Is it any wonder that the Chicago Teachers Union has fought back by striking and by fighting the discrimination of minority teachers firings in court?  The Seattle teachers are now fighting the teach to the test mentality that is not preparing our students to think critically.

“For the Seattle teachers, the issue is the district decision to require Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests three times per year and to use the results to judge teachers.  The testing juggernaut is out of control and teachers and students are the ones who are directly in its path.  Similarly, when Chicago teachers went on strike in September, a key issue was the misuse of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Both actions are part of a growing national resistance to high-stakes testing that includes not only teachers but parents, students, principals, school boards, and education professors and researchers. This resistance includes a National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing signed by more than 475 organizations and 14,000 individuals.  In Seattle, some parents had been opting their children out of the tests even before the teachers’ boycott. These parents understand that the Garfield teachers have a powerful case against these tests and their uses.”  Yahoo News

Not only is this bad education policy, it continues the corporate backed austerity measures that do nothing but make the economy worse by firing people and making it harder for those same companies to get qualified and educated workers.  Is it possible that the true goal of the Race to the Top program is to make sure the public school system fails and allows for charter and private schools to fill the void at a huge cost to the public?

I realize some schools are not successful, but to make the closure of schools that are working to obtain more Federal dollars is not a progressive policy.  What do you think?

114 thoughts on “Obama’s Race to the Bottom”

  1. rafflaw,

    I thought you might find this 2008 article interesting:

    Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling
    Wednesday 17 December 2008
    by: Henry A. Giroux and Kenneth Saltman

    Since the 1980s, but particularly under the Bush administration, certain elements of the religious right, corporate culture and Republican right wing have argued that free public education represents either a massive fraud or a contemptuous failure. Far from a genuine call for reform, these attacks largely stem from an attempt to transform schools from a public investment to a private good, answerable not to the demands and values of a democratic society but to the imperatives of the marketplace. As the educational historian David Labaree rightly argues, public schools have been under attack in the last decade “not just because they are deemed ineffective but because they are public.”[1] Right-wing efforts to disinvest in public schools as critical sites of teaching and learning and govern them according to corporate interests is obvious in the emphasis on standardized testing, the use of top-down curricular mandates, the influx of advertising in schools, the use of profit motives to “encourage” student performance, the attack on teacher unions and modes of pedagogy that stress rote learning and memorization. For the Bush administration, testing has become the ultimate accountability measure, belying the complex mechanisms of teaching and learning. The hidden curriculum is that testing be used as a ploy to de-skill teachers by reducing them to mere technicians, that students be similarly reduced to customers in the marketplace rather than as engaged, critical learners and that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized. But there is an even darker side to the reforms initiated under the Bush administration and now used in a number of school systems throughout the country. As the logic of the market and “the crime complex”[2] frame the field of social relations in schools, students are subjected to three particularly offensive policies, defended by school authorities and politicians under the rubric of school safety. First, students are increasingly subjected to zero-tolerance policies that are used primarily to punish, repress and exclude them. Second, they are increasingly absorbed into a “crime complex” in which security staff, using harsh disciplinary practices, now displace the normative functions teachers once provided both in and outside of the classroom.[3] Third, more and more schools are breaking down the space between education and juvenile delinquency, substituting penal pedagogies for critical learning and replacing a school culture that fosters a discourse of possibility with a culture of fear and social control. Consequently, many youth of color in urban school systems, because of harsh zero-tolerance polices, are not just being suspended or expelled from school. They are being ushered into the dark precincts of juvenile detention centers, adult courts and prison. Surely, the dismantling of this corporatized and militarized model of schooling should be a top priority under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Obama has appointed as his secretary of education someone who actually embodies this utterly punitive, anti-intellectual, corporatized and test-driven model of schooling.

    Barack Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan for secretary of education does not bode well either for the political direction of his administration nor for the future of public education. Obama’s call for change falls flat with this appointment, not only because Duncan largely defines schools within a market-based and penal model of pedagogy, but also because he does not have the slightest understanding of schools as something other than adjuncts of the corporation at best or the prison at worse. The first casualty in this scenario is a language of social and political responsibility capable of defending those vital institutions that expand the rights, public goods and services central to a meaningful democracy. This is especially true with respect to the issue of public schooling and the ensuing debate over the purpose of education, the role of teachers as critical intellectuals, the politics of the curriculum and the centrality of pedagogy as a moral and political practice.

    Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, 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 poor and 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. A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”[4] Duncan’s neoliberal ideology is on full display in the various connections he has established with the ruling political and business elite in Chicago.[5] He led the Renaissance 2010 plan, which was created for Mayor Daley by the Commercial Club of Chicago – an organization representing the largest businesses in the city. The purpose of Renaissance 2010 was to increase the number of high quality schools that would be subject to new standards of accountability – a code word for legitimating more charter schools and high stakes testing in the guise of hard-nosed empiricism…

  2. AY-

    Obama can’t touch me. I was drafted in 1964,


    You are right about Obama’s goals for his second term. He apparently thinks “Race To The Top” means his own race to the top horse-country community with the top exclusive country club. “Barrington Hills, here I come!”

    Swarthmore mom-

    It won’t work anymore- we have seen the man behind the curtain.

  3. RWL:

    retail is hard work.

    “NCES studeis have shown that those with a college degree committ fewer crimes, make more money, and live healthier lifestyles than those who do not complete a degree.”

    I am going to bet the same thing was said about universal high school education 100 years ago.

    I am also betting that if you compare college educated people with people who make the same amount of money but who do not have college educations, you will find similar statistics.

    People seem to make the mistake that you need a college education to be educated or informed.

  4. rafflaw,

    Thank you! As you know, I am a retired public school teacher. I witnessed what the craze for high stakes tesing of young children was doing to the educational process in my elementary school. It’s the reason that I left the classroom and became a school librarian.


    “Is it possible that the true goal of the Race to the Top program is to make sure the public school system fails and allows for charter and private schools to fill the void at a huge cost to the public?”

    I think you already know the answer to your question. Don’t forget the desire of the moneyed class and the powers that be to bust teacher unions.

  5. The tea party is doing its best to destroy public education in Texas, and they hate Obama. It’s not all about Obama.

  6. raff,

    I take back what I said last weekend. This is your best column to date. Bravo!

    And what Justice Holmes said.

  7. HenMan,

    Thanks…. Hope you know this will probably make you very unpopular with the Obamas it crowd….

  8. Bron,

    You said, “Today college basically prepares people to work for corporations”…..this is only true if you have a certain degree, for example IT, Health, Accounting, Teaching, or Science(s). In today’s job market, if you don’t have connections, most employers want full-time work experience along with a college degree.

    You said, “if everyone in our country earned a college education it would mean nothing at all.” Not true at all.

    20 years ago, as an undergraduate, I used to work for Walmart, and the store manager and hr coordinator told me the exact same line as they told my children and nephews who are currently working at walmart: “we usually frown upon hiring college students, because we know that you will probably leave in a couple of months or after you graduate.” My nephew was inteested in walmart’s management trainee program; however, when the store manager told him that he will have to work rotating shifts, weekends and holidays (except for christmas-walmart is closed), my nephew said: “H#$* no!!” He asked him about working at the corporate office, and my nephew said, “I refuse to live in Bentonville, AR; I will probably be the only black man there.lol”

    Bentonville AR is less than 2% black, and the average household income is $33,000.

    My daughter went on to say that even at their school carer fairs, where walmart is always there, she stated that everyone knows that it is embarrassing to go to their (walmart’s) booth. She went on to say: “If I get that desparate, then I will go back to school and become a pediatrician.”

    NCES studeis have shown that those with a college degree committ fewer crimes, make more money, and live healthier lifestyles than those who do not complete a degree.

  9. What Bill Gates wants, Bill Gates gets.

    Whether it is a privatized school system or GMOs from Monsanto pushed into nations, rich and poor, all over the world.

  10. RWL:

    “(remember, if everyone-in the US-obtained a college degree, then Walton Family wouldn’t have anyone to work at Walmart (remember our economy depends on the need for low-skilled/educational workers)”

    People said the same thing about a high school education and look how well that has turned out. Today college basically prepares people to work for corporations. And not everyone with a college degree is going to become a CEO.

    if everyone in our country earned a college education it would mean nothing at all. There would still be plenty of people who would be working at Wal Mart-the ones who werent able to perform at a higher level.

    I also might point out that Wal Mart has managers, accountants, facilities managers, logistic professionals and a good deal more job descriptions which require having a brain and motivation. A college degree isnt necessarily required.

  11. Blouise, One would think that the library will be at the University of Chicago.

  12. Raff,

    Wonderful exposé …. No real difference between no child left behind and this…. They are stepping stones to dumbing down Americans…. For all of LBJs faults…. He built on Kennedy’s promises…. If you privatize education…. How long will it be before Plessey is fully implemented?

    I worked for NEA and value education…. Too bad those in power are short sighted…. Thanks for a valuable contribution this week…..

  13. My, how nice to return to see such loooonnnnggg comments.

    Will be short as I am only calling to folllowup the DN post re “Kill anything that moves”, to the TomDispatch linked at the end, to the journalists who was there as many others only seeing a small bit of the big picture, and who reviews with his own recollections from there..

    Why is this pertinent? And not OT?
    Because we spend many hours here discussing repression, etc etc etc and are doing so on this thread.
    And while not showing the historical process behind it, the book well illuustrates that the disinformation, denial of deeds done, strategies planned for genocide there, is a continuation of disinformation consciously planned.

    Why is this relevant 50 years afterwards? Do I leave too great a gap to hop over?. Do you see that they did it to us then, and are doing it to us now—more than ever?

    Are Kerry and the Sec War nominee meant to change things? Isn’t that naive? We are so easily misled, blinded by so many things.
    Can we really expect these two men to effect the strivings of the MIC and the Pentagon/State to move away from the corrupting influences of today and serve us truth, not fiction? Do good deeds and not hide evil ones.
    One is hell, embellishing on it with planned genocide is too much.

    Do? Do what? Read Tomdispatch, watch DN or Seymour Hersh who revealed My Lai. Revisit DN and look at the picture of the dead in My Lai.
    Do you feel it is unreal. That when the director yells cut and next scene, then all the dead mothers will rise, pickiing the dolls representing their dead children, etc etc. No, they won’t and it is real.


    Myself, I sit here a fellow human with vietnamese, who go home every year, han chinese with Vietnamese names (Trienh Minh) and others who I can only be myself with, to these strangers who are excluded from being Swedes with blond hair etc. Their children are hopefully retaining their cultural roots, and yet becoming Swedes in spite of the barriars of bias.

    And I designed B-52 bases in 1965-66 in Bangkok. What do we have as a share of this past conduct? Of the ten-year war in Afghanistan? Of the Iraq war. Of changing our system?

    I am too long and the subject and contingent problems are never-ending.

    Again good work all, today especially Raflaw.

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