Arne Duncan’s failed civil rights initiatives

Last week, NEA delegates adopted a new business item calling for US Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation. Given the damage Duncan’s policies have done to the American institution of public education, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

There’s too much to say about Duncan’s bad education policy in one post, but every time his name comes up, I find myself thinking back to a quote that I simply can’t get past–and I think it’s even more relevant today than it was when Duncan said it on June 25th, 2013:

I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.


*I’ll preface the remainder of this post with an acknowledgement that the NEA and AFT both still support the Common Core, though leaders from both unions are actively criticizing the implementation of and testing associated with the standards. There are, however, teachers’ unions–namely the CTU and the NYSUT–that have made statements of opposition to the CCSS.  Also, the Badass Teachers Association, a one-year-old Facebook group of 49,000 teachers from across the country, remains staunch in its opposition to the Common Core.  

Back to the quote. I can’t say whether the Secretary’s statement was a product of ignorance, arrogance, or both (remember, he is a race expert; he knows all about minorities AND “white suburban moms“), but I do think that the year of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision is a good opportunity to revisit Duncan’s implication that the Common Core State Standards will help to ensure equal educational opportunities for minority students.

Though there’s much debate about the virtues of the actual standards themselves, it seems that there’s even more upset about the construction and implementation of the CCSS initiative. Either way, given all the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards, nobody should be convinced that CCSS is some magic cure-all for what ails public education–especially when it comes to inequality.

Anthony Cody’s “Common Core Standards: Ten Colossal Errors” is one of the most thorough and concise essays I’ve read about the many and diverse issues with the CCSS. Though all the points Cody makes are interrelated, the final “error” he describes is perhaps the most applicable to this post:

The biggest problem of American education and American society is the growing number of children living in poverty. As was recently documented by the Southern Education Fund (and reported in the Washington Post) across the American South and West, a majority of our children are now living in poverty.

The Common Core does nothing to address this problem. In fact, it is diverting scarce resources and time into more tests, more technology for the purpose of testing, and into ever more test preparation.

The tests Cody mentions here, which he describes in more detail in other parts of his essay, are an inextricable component of the Common Core State Standards–and the data from these tests is being used to label and punish students and teachers and to close public schools, primarily in urban areas that are populated by socioeconomically-disadvantaged and minority students.

Are these school closures, which are increasingly justified by Common Core test scores and which disproportionately affect minority and low-income studentswhat Duncan was referring to in his 2013 statement? (Note that in the same speech, Duncan also touted the CCSS as a solution to the “achievement gap,” which the rest of us know is better labeled as an “opportunity gap.” But if we’re sticking with the “achievement gap” language, I should point out that the flawed Common Core tests New York administered last year “expanded the black/white achievement gap.” In this same article, author Carol Burris concludes that “unless we level the playing field between rich and poor we can never achieve college and career readiness for all.”)

But again–CCSS does nothing to address or correct the issue of poverty or help its victims, many of whom are minority students living in urban areas.

In May of 2014, and because Duncan’s “reforms” were hurting instead of helping minorities, Journey for Justicean “alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country,” filed civil rights complaints in Chicago, Newark, and New Orleans, since “striking inequities remain in public education,” as “predominately African-American and Latino communities being targeted for school closings – with students re-enrolled in different schools, or neighborhood schools turned over to private companies.”

At the same time, the J4J released a brilliant 38-page report entitled “Death By A Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage” that sharply criticizes Duncan (and Rhee, Gates, Emanuel, and Bloomberg) for calling his kind of education “reform” “the civil rights movement of our time.” If you haven’t read this report, please do so. It is so important (and I regret that I didn’t write about it sooner), and so clear in its exposure of the education reform movement for what it really is: a billionaire-backed push to privatize education by imposing untested and unproven initiatives on our country’s most vulnerable children. Particularly relevant here is a quote from the section entitled “The Perversity of ‘Reformers’ Claiming the Mantle of the Civil Rights Movement”:

As residents of the communities most affected by school closures and charter school expansion, we must take issue with this rhetorical deception.

First, it is appalling that anyone would dare to equate the billionaire-funded destruction of our most treasured public institutions with the grassroots-led struggles for racial equality to which many of our elders and ancestors made heroic sacrifices.

Second, we simply cannot tolerate anyone telling us these policies are for our own good.  Because we are the students they claim to be doing this for.  We are the parents and family members that they claim to be helping.  The communities they’re changing so rapidly are our communities, and our experience with school closures and charter school expansion confirms what an abundance of research has made quite clear: these policies have not produced higher-quality educational opportunities for our children and youth, but they have been hugely destructive.

The report also asserts that “the dramatic expansion of charter schools has done nothing to address the root causes of the challenges our communities face,” (challenges that most reformers discount, diminish, or ignore–i.e. poverty, racism, etc.), and that “the policies being implemented have unquestionably been racially discriminatory.”

Yet despite outcry from the people most affected by Duncan’s reforms, the secretary continues to impose his agenda on marginalized groups throughout the country.

Because it’s been making national news lately, let’s use New Orleans as an example. In 2010, Duncan said, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina” (yes, he really said that), and it was clear that Duncan wanted to use the “opportunity” of a devastating storm to “reform” the city’s school district. And lo and behold, in May of this year (the same month in which J4J filed suit and released its report), it was announced that New Orleans would soon become the first all-charter city in America–despite experts’ insistence that the NOLA charter “experiment” was already failing.  (Also, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

Just yesterday, New Orleans’ Recovery School District had an “embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process” when hundreds of parents were turned away after waiting for hours in long lines to register their children for school–effectively leaving their children’s educational placements for the next academic year up in the air. (As an aside, the Recovery School District “OneApp” process sounds strikingly similar to Cami Anderson’s One Newark Universal Enrollment process, which has been a disaster.)  One parent who was turned away in NOLA yesterday was a member of one community organizing group, among many, that filed–you guessed it–a civil rights complaint last year that the Recovery School District was failing to serve non-native English-speaking families. And that J4J civil rights complaintmentioned earlier that was filed in May? LA Education Superintendent John White called it “a joke.” 

(Also worth noting is that Bobby Jindal, a former Common Core supporter, wants out of CCSS and is currently fighting over the issue with White.)

I wonder if Arne Duncan would consider NOLA’s Recovery School District the shining example of a Common Core Reformy Civil Rights Success that he hoped it would be. Or what about Chicago’s schools?  Philadelphia’s?  Newark’s?  Camden’s?


Ultimately, the information detailed in “Death By A Thousand Cuts” reiterates a theme that’s all too present in the current climate of education reform across the country: disenfranchisement. Billionaires and people of privilege and influence close schools without adequate justification or community input, and then they privatize education. This increasingly-common practice, as Mark Weber and Bruce Baker have shown in New Jersey, disproportionately affects minorities.

The long and short of it is this: as J4J notes, Arne Duncan’s brand of education “reform,” which makes billionaires and profiteering corporations richer, is hurting the very people reformers claim it’s designed to help. And regardless of the value of the Common Core standards themselves, the CCSS initiative–with its non-educator billionaire creators/backers, its incessant and punitive testing, and its use as a vehicle to facilitate mass school closures–is a large part of the problem.

Sorry, Arne.  You need to go. Please take your reforms with you–and give public education back to the parents, communities, and educators who know what’s best for their children.

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