20. Obama’s Charter School Policies Spread Segregation and Undermine Unions

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and sometimes language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the country.

Charter schools are often marketed as incubators of educational innovation, and they form a key feature of the Obama administration’s school reform agenda. But in some urban communities, they may be fueling de facto school segregation and undermining public education.

Student Researchers:

  • Kelsey Harris and Gina R. Sarpy (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluators:

  • Laura Watt and Sheila Katz (Sonoma State University)

A University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) Civil Rights Project study, “Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” reported that charter schools, particularly those in the western United States, are havens for white re-segregation from public schools. “The charter movement has flourished in a period of retreat on civil rights,” stated UCLA professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the project.

In many charter schools, 90 to 100 percent of the population is minority students, close to twice the rate of traditional public schools. But even a charter school with a social mission of promoting economic and racial equity still runs up against the limits posed by selectivity and exclusion.

Obama’s national education policy supports the expansion of charter schools to undermine public education and schoolteacher labor unions. Obama wants to tie teachers’ pay to student performance, which would be measured through test scores. Merit pay based on performance is strongly opposed by teachers’ unions nationwide. Teachers want equal pay for equal work and assurances that funding for low-income schools will be fair. Charters are known for resisting teacher unions, which means they drive segregation not only in the student population but in the school workforce as well.

As a junior senator from Illinois, Obama doubled the number of charter schools in his state, despite reservations from teachers, community leaders, and unions. Obama seems to have latched onto the ideological rhetoric that charter schools are somehow engines of innovation that promise to raise all public schools performance, even though, in actuality, the expansion of charter schools is a process of privatizing public schools. Some argue that this is not improving schools but rather replacing public schools with non-union for-profit and nonprofit private institutions. Charter schools are often accused of “cherry picking students” to build higher test scores, leaving low-income and difficult-to-teach students in inadequately funded public systems. Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, closed seventy neighborhood schools while he was Superintendent of Schools in Chicago, resulting in a loss of six thousand Chicago teachers’ union members.

On July 30, 2009, the US Senate Appropriations Committee voted for a $40 million increase in federal charter school program (CSP) funding, bringing the total to $256 million for fiscal year 2010. Also included in the bill were significant educational reform investments strongly aligned with the Obama administration’s priorities. The unprecedented payout takes a bead on the teachers unions: money will flow to districts that alter pay and seniority provisions in union contracts and states that roll out the carpet for (mostly non-union) charter schools.

Public schools will now be forced to choose stimulus money over policy, a form of economic extortion and increased federal and corporate control over decision making, especially at a time when many of these states are financial insolvent. Nonprofit and private charter school operators stand to make big gains from the federal incentive package. Several states have already amended their laws to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

The Obama administration’s actions, in tandem with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is part and parcel of typical neoliberal policy making: wielding federal stimulus funds as a financial weapon to force all states to increase the number of charter schools they host, as well as to force states that do not have them to pass legislation authorizing their creation. Through financial arm-twisting at a time of disastrous economic crisis, the Obama administration plans to use the power of the federal government to create a much larger national market for charter school providers, be they for profit or nonprofit, virtual charters, educational management organizations (EMOs), or single operators.

Using government to create market opportunities for business interests is at the heart of neoliberal economic policies; as a result, market adherents both need and relish government for its role in legislating and unleashing favorable public policies that benefit businesses’ ability to maximize private capital while charging private costs to the public.

The real story and prospects for the nation’s future education policy can be best revealed by Arne Duncan’s historical involvement in support of neoliberal policies created in Chicago under the Renaissance 2010 project. Renaissance 2010 is a corporate project to reform both the city and its public schools, with the intent of creating schools and geographical spaces that serve to attract the professionals believed to be needed in a twenty-first-century global city. Renaissance 2010 places public schooling under the control of corporate leaders who aim to convert public schools to charter and contract schools, breaking the power of unions and handing over the administration of the newly created charter schools to “providers” beholden to corporations, philanthropists, and business interests. Duncan, as the former CEO of the Chicago public schools (CPS), was an efficient manager for the neoliberal policies and legislative necessities dictated by the corporate elite corporations and their political representatives.

Duncan personally oversaw the attempted closure of twenty Chicago public schools in low-income neighborhoods of color in 2004. He did so with little or no community input—managing, at least for a time, to snub the meddlesome outsiders, like parents and their children, who might have raised objections to the CEO’s plans for the schools, or at the very least offer suggestions in the spirit of community decision making.

In fact, rapid increases in military programs in Chicago public schools actually did occur largely under Duncan’s tenure as CEO of CPS. The Chicago public school system has five military high schools, more than any city in the nation, and twenty-one “middle school cadet corps” programs. The military high schools teach military history and have military-style discipline. Students wear military uniforms, perform military drills, and participate in summer boot camps. The hierarchical authority structure mirrors the army, navy, and marines, with new students (“cadets”) under the command of senior students who had worked their way up and require obedience from those in “lower ranks.” All but one of the military high schools are in African-American communities, and all the middle school cadet programs are in overwhelmingly black or Latino schools. (See the honorable mentions in chapter 1, Censored 2010.)

The charter school takeover has been achieved quietly in Detroit and Washington DC, where around half the school kids in each city are now enrolled in charters. Under the emergency control of a state-appointed manager, Detroit opened twenty-nine fewer schools in fall 2009 and put many high schools under the control of private management groups. The next target is the teachers’ contract. In late August 2009, thousands of Detroit teachers protested proposed 10 percent wage cuts, elimination of step increases, and increased fines for work stoppages from $250 to $7,500 per day.

The Obama education policy hardly differs from the Bush administration’s policy of hitching student and teacher performance to what many in the educational community and beyond call inauthentic assessments, which force teachers to teach to the test and do little to encourage critical thinking or collaborative problem solving. The Obama policy is also quite similar to Bush’s in its goals for the rapid expansion of charter school networks and nonprofit with for-profit providers to run them.

Update by Danny Weil

When I wrote “Obama and Duncan’s Education Policy: Like Bush’s, Only Worse” for CounterPunch back in August of 2009, it was obvious that a corporate takeover of education was ginned up, triggered, and in process. The insidious experiment was initially fully launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, under the tutelage of Paul T. Hill’s “Diverse Strategies” model. Since the publication of the CounterPunch article, the corporatization of education has continued at rapid speeds, with public school closures occurring daily and student and teacher dislocation becoming the norm.

“Race to the Top,” the new brand name for No Child Left Behind conjured up by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is now cannibalizing urban areas in the same way venture capitalists descended on New Orleans and privatized the educational system after the hurricane. Arne Duncan—along with his philanthropic friends who make up the Department of Education (DOE) and the business entrepreneurs who are anxious to get their greedy hands on the 5.6 percent of the national economy that education represents—is simply mouthing the same themes enunciated more than twenty-five years ago in the Reagan administration’s 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, and for many of the same reasons.

They say the US cannot compete globally without an educated workforce; they tell us that America is falling behind in the economic global race to the top; they say US competition is failing and thus the entire enterprise of America stands held hostage to the unforgiving failures of American public education that can be pinned on the teacher’s unions.

The American public is now witnessing the wholesale privatization of education as cities, municipalities, and states are suffering from budget woes caused by the pillage and social failures of financial monopoly capitalism and its devastating policies that are intent on privatizing everything public, from schools, to the military, to health care, to public housing. With the public sector virtually bankrupt, Race to the Top is now forcing states to bend their knees and adopt the “four assurances” that underlie the radical new program Duncan is proposing, or close to their public schools and face massive losses of revenues and the denial of public services to children and decent, livable wages to teachers.

For states to be eligible for the $4.3 billion that Duncan has pocketed in federal funds to dole out to states that meet his criteria, they must show they are progressing toward meeting the four assurances. If they do not, then the states will not qualify for the funds and their political representatives will be forced to tell their constituencies that there are no monies for education and face the wrath of voters. As a result, many states are clamoring to meet Duncan’s “standards” and are doing all they can to become victims of Duncan’s extortion demands.

To begin with, teachers and schools must accept and “assure” what are called “high quality standards and assessments,” as explained by the International Center for Leadership and Education.

These standards and assessments are not the product of teachers’ collaborative thinking, but are instead the progeny of the well-heeled Wall Street bankers and their “turnaround” artists who have decided what our children should learn and how teachers must teach. The standards are inauthentic and laced to the vicious No Child Left Behind law inherited from the bipartisan Congress, signed into law by the Bush administration, and now chest held by the Obama administration. Although Obama blasted the tests as no way to measure student performance, as I indicated in the piece for CounterPunch, this was mere rhetoric designed to fool the public, as the standards and assessments are now the providence of private companies who work with the DOE.

Certainly charter chains would prefer national standards; that is why they look to the government to assure they have a highly profitable landscape to scrape up the contracts. This would allow them to use prepackaged curricula across their charter outlets no matter the location—it’s highly conducive to expanding their “market share,” for dummied down, standardized curricula keep costs down, and the dispensation is formulaic and repetitive. This is the Wal-Mart model of education.

The second assurance that states must meet to qualify for the federal monies is to tie teaching to material incentives for the purposes of what Duncan calls “teaching effectiveness.” Nowhere can this be seen more clearly and directly than in the merit pay schemes being flown as trial balloons in many cities in an effort to destroy teacher unions and collective bargaining.

The third assurance is “turning around low performing schools,” which means opening up the floodgate for charter schools, state by state, by forcing states to either initiate charter legislation and/or to raise the caps on the number of charter schools that can be opened in their states without being in violation of state law. In other words, using government legislation as a fulcrum to assure that the financial monopoly class has the ability to start “charter retail chains” without any blockage by meddlesome state laws or unions limiting their opening and expansion.

It also means closing public schools, city by city. According to a survey conducted last fall by the school administrators’ association, nationally 6 percent of districts closed or consolidated schools for the 2009–10 school year, double the number from the 2008–09 school year. The ranks of public school closures are expected to grow to 11 percent for the 2010–11 school year.

Closing schools is good news for privatizers looking to make a buck, for it actually increases the school system’s ability to qualify for state construction dollars that can be turned over to private corporations. As a result, the contracts to build new schools are given to Wall Street corporate financial interests and developers who profit off the devastation left by the Wall Street crash and theft of public funds. This sordid “assurance” is all bundled up as “school choice,” the favored language of the educational prevaricators.

It is important to understand that Arne Duncan and the Obama administration have bought the notion of public school choice and corporate education as a panacea for what ails public education. Like his predecessor under George W. Bush, former secretary of education Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan and President Obama espouse the common rationale given for neoliberal educational reforms: competition provides the best or most efficient motor for change and reform. The contention is similar to the private voucher argument that traditional public schools (TPS) can be best improved by competitive market mechanisms.

Like private choice, the public choice rationale maintains that all public schools, and student learning in general, improve when schools have to compete for students, when students and their parents have the right to choose. Such an environment sends the message to teachers that they too need to compete, and then values such as solidarity, diversity appreciation, equity and equal opportunity, and participatory democracy all go out the window. They are not valued in the new “scheme of things.”

Race to the Top embraces a new but old business language, the language of competition rather than the language of collaboration, until what is posited is a scarcity environment: of winners and losers, no one in between.

Finally, the fourth assurance is to adopt “data systems to inform instruction.” These data systems come in the form of longitudinal testing and tracking systems for students, from kindergarten to workforce. This assurance is now moving rapidly, galloping across the educational terrain as testing companies see a virtual bonanza in preparing and selling tests, training teachers and students for the state tests with privatized for-profit test prep kits, as well as using the tests as Wall Street rating devices pointing to exciting new privatized educational opportunities and “best practices.”

Sadly, the results of the new national and state testing regime will be fed into an expanded data system used to evaluate teachers, to see if they are meeting the “measured outcomes,” the free-market “targets” they have been hired to accomplish. Reduced to “clerks in the classroom,” teachers could expect to devote themselves to “professional development” days, to be told by corporate spokespeople how to use the data kits, computer-generated graphs, tables, and more to figure out if their students are meeting the mandatory measured outcomes under No Child Left Behind.

It is now time to resist this regimented individualism through as combination of understanding, solidarity among working people, critical dialogue, and direct collective action. Otherwise, we will look to a society inhabited by more war, militarism, regimentation, authoritarianism, competition, penalty, and social decline. We will hollow out the moral body of our citizenry by forcing them to feed at the trough of illegitimate learning—a body blow to the body politic. It is time to stand up for public education, no matter the level of the educator, for as solidarity tells us, we are all in this together, and if the bridge goes down we all go down. The good news is that the responses to my article and many more like it are having a compelling effect.

Public schools in Detroit, Washington, DC, throughout New Jersey, and many other diverse cities and states across the nation are struggling back with high school and middle school student walkouts—16,000 in New Jersey alone. Student leaders are emerging, and their presence will no doubt increase as shown in the occupation of Governor Jennifer Granholm’s office in Detroit.

Also in Detroit, students defeated a plan by Wal-Mart; the retailer attempted to worm its way into four high schools by offering “internships” for course credit. Students will be at the forefront of the battles that will take place as the unfavorable policies go forward and the economy continues to affect the population, especially Latinos and Blacks in urban centers throughout the nation.

Corporate news coverage of the events is virtually nonexistent. Surreptitiously each day, Arne Duncan and his close allies on Wall Street continue to collect tax dollars under the radar of most citizens who are too busy trying to cope with a deracinated economic and social landscape that has left them bereft of any public safety net during a time of economic meltdown and job loss. Reportage of the carnage caused by Race to the Top and the new corporate model for education has been left to progressive reporting online or through organizational organizing and efforts by such groups as By Any Means Necessary, and any others who are fighting privatization and the destruction of educational opportunities for our nation’s youth.

We can only hope further education regarding the new corporate educational model will lead to stiff resistance and block the plans of the “turnaround” artists, venture capitalists, and Wall Street money makers. If not, then education will be reduced to training and teachers reorganized as “at-will” associates in the long march toward corporatocracy and the Walmartization of Education.

Update by Paul Abowd

President Obama has made good on another one of those campaign promises that many progressives had wishfully chalked up to an electoral strategy of “playing to the center.” It turns out that Obama’s vision for public education goes way beyond electioneering, and has turned into an aggressive federal schools initiative revealing the administration’s abiding faith in market principles to resolve issues of public concern.

Obama’s Race to the Top contest has awarded only two states thus far, but has compelled nearly every state to alter its education code in anticipation of winning a piece of the several billion dollar federal aid package.

While the federal plan proceeds apace, resistance to it has grown—most notably in Chicago. A progressive slate of teachers is poised to take over the third largest teachers’ union in the country this summer. In an effort to connect the union with a broader community movement to revitalize public education, the Chicago teachers are putting up perhaps the most promising opposition to the privatization of public education—in the city where Obama’s education plan was hatched.

In Detroit, a foundation-funded schools manager appointed by the governor is finding community resistance and a legal challenge to his school closure plan, while DC teacher reformers are knocking on the door in union elections. In Los Angeles, teachers won their first battle against the city’s attempt to put public schools up for bid. Parents’ and teachers’ proposals for union-run schools beat out charter operators for control of dozens of contested campuses.

The summer 2009 national meeting of teacher reformers in Los Angeles was important in coalescing a national strategy for opposing Obama’s schools plan—and it has produced significant victories along the way. However, unions are still scrambling to find a unified response to attacks from a president they wholeheartedly supported. Because now, the work of saving public schools is not only about resisting and reacting, but proactively putting forth an alternative—lest teachers’ unions face charges of obstructing progress that the mainstream media is all too ready to level against them.

Luckily, the blogosphere is becoming a valuable resource as battles over public education continue. Current and former teachers themselves are broadcasting their experiences, their insider knowledge, and the dirty tricks of administrators and corrupt union officials alike. Some recommended blogs and independent news outlets on education include the Web sites for NYC Educator, Education Notes, Substance News, the Washington Teacher, and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators.


E. Frankenberg, G. Siegel-Hawley, and J. Wang, “Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, University of California–Los Angeles, http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/news/pressreleases/pressrelease20100204-report.html.

Danny Weil, “Obama and Duncan’s Education Policy: Like Bush’s, Only Worse,” CounterPunch, August 24, 2009, http://counterpunch.org/weil08242009.html.

Michelle Chen, “Equity and Access in Charter School Systems,” Race Wire, August 19, 2009, http://www.racewire.org/archives/2009/08/special_education_equity_and_a_1.html.

Paul Abowd, “Teacher Reformers Prepare for Battle Over Public Education,” Labor Notes, October 13, 2009, http://www.labornotes.org/node/2472


  • By Any Means Necessary Web site, www.bamn.com.
  • A. Duncan, “Elevating the Teaching Profession,” American Educator 33, no. 4 (Winter 2009–10).
  • A. Greenblatt, “Schools Across US Grapple With Closures,” National Public Radio, March 11, 2010, http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/mar/11/schools-across-us-grapple-closures.
  • Barbara Martinez, “D.C. Deal Puts Merit Pay for Teachers on the Syllabus,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303591204575170280501458008.html?mod=WSJ_newsreel_us.
  • D. Simmons, “DC Teacher Contract Includes Merit Pay,” Washington Times, April 8, 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/apr/08/merit-pay-deal-included-in-dc-teacher-contract.
  • K. Spak, “D.C. Teacher’s Union Agrees to Merit Pay,” April 9, 2010, http://www.newser.com/story/85502/dc-teachers-union-agrees-to-merit-pay.html.
  • International Center for Leadership in Education, “The Impact of the Four Assurances on Classrooms and Schools, Getting to the finish line in Race to the Top,” April 2, 2010, www.leadered.com/pdf/Race to theTop4.2.10.pdf.
  • D. Weil, “On the Future of Education if Bill Gates and Arne Duncan Get Their Way,” CounterPunch, January 1, 2009.
  • D. Weil, “Tenure, Merit Pay and Teachers: Washington D.C. and Florida Set to Lose Tenure, Adopt Merit Pay and Create At-will Employees Just Like Wal-Mart’s Greeters,” April 10, 2010, http://dailycensored.com/2010/04/10/tneure-merit-pay-washington-d-c-and-forida.
  • D. Weil, “New Jersey Students Walk Out of Public Schools,” April 29, 2010, http://dailycensored.com/2010/04/29/new-jersey-students-walk-out-of-public-schools.
  • D. Weil, “Pass It On! Students and Activists Arrested at Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm’s Office Over the Decimation of Public Education in Detroit,” May 12, 2010, http://dailycensored.com/2010/05/12/students-and-activists-arrested-at-governor-of-michigan-jennifer-granholms-office-over-the-decimation-of-public-education.
  • D. Weil, “Yvette Felarca Must Replace the Current American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten,” June 5, 2010, http://dailycensored.com/2010/ 06/05/yvette-felarca-must-replace-the-current-american-federation-of-teachers-aft-president-randi-weingarten.