What He Didn’t Say…

By Brett Warnke

What is most lamentable about the 2008 election is not just the failure of journalism to demand answers about the ignominious state of public education, but both candidates’ platitudinous mumbling about school reform.  President-elect Obama won with a fawning “Hope” cult by shouting, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  But the failure of candidate Obama to be a torchbearer for dramatic change in public education raises many questions about how President Obama will reform and whether he will implement controversial changes.

John Adams once wrote that “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”  History has responded.  Complete federal, state, and local spending for education, both public and private, climbed to $745 billion for the 2001-02 school year.  Sixty-one percent, or $454 billion, was spent on K-12 education.  So why does the U.S. rank 25th out of the 30 industrialized countries in math?  Why then, from New York to New Orleans, are teenagers unable to read?  The answer is simple: teachers.  When teachers teach well, students learn.  And the United States has fallen behind in the quality of our teaching.

While unions, numbering between 4.6 million in the NEA and AFT, protect their own, failing students gravitate towards service jobs and prison.  Obama encapsulated his plans at the DNC in August by saying, “I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, pay them higher salaries and give them more support. In exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”  Sounds plum, right?  But a vivified “army” will, apparently by Obama’s plan, be recruited through broader teaching scholarships.  Haven’t years of continuous failure demonstrated that the fundamentals within the study of education in universities are broken?  Hasn’t high turnover demonstrated that students need more trial-by-fire in failing schools if we are to address the achievement gap?  And that our system must demand that new teachers be leaders, solely responsible for their students’ achievement and not squirming excuse-makers who blame illiteracy on video-games and shortcomings on the home front?  The incentives for teaching are currently far too few.  Job security for teachers is the one major benefit holding back student achievement.  Thousands of teachers need to be fired and the unions who shield their incompetence need to be given a reality check, results matter.  Who would stand against confronting unions, Republicans?

Obama has committed himself to ‘merit pay.’  Great, but does our society even know about the achievement gap that would demand such action?  Do Americans know that white seventeen-year olds scored, on average, just over thirty points higher than their African-American peers, and that thirty-six percent of black children and thirty-four percent of Hispanic children are living in poverty?  (These statistics come from the National Council of Educational Research and Training.)  Does Obama know about America’s “savage inequalities”, and even more importantly, is he willing to go the distance to reverse them?  The economic stratification of our schools through “white flight” and today’s “legal” re-segregation has paralyzed both major political parties.

Teachers unions, in attempts to protect underpaid and overworked teachers, have crippled attempts at reform and accountability while conservative voucher programs and “market-based” charter programs have undercut the very idea of legitimate public education.  Code words and political piffling have hijacked discourse, nearly eliminating the discussion of workable solutions.  “Excellence for all” has given politicians the means to funnel funds to middle-class schools.  “Economic development” has been used to cut funds from public universities.  And “Market Models” of education (though successful in New Orleans) seem content with maintaining re-segregated schools.

Obama’s economic outlook and his plans do put an emphasis on increasing opportunities.  But public education cannot remedy “opportunity gaps”, only increased access to safety-net reforms and economic restructuring will achieve this.  Because capitalism needs an underclass, are we not just accepting inequality as a fait accompli? The 1947, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated, “Everyone has the right to education…education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  Does this still hold true?  To realize the Declaration, Obama must assume the role of Principal for radically re-tooled public schools – a role for which he seems unready and unwilling.

Very little is said in his plans about the millions of students not in elementary school, or about educational funds abroad.  His campaign mainly focused on renewing expansive access to education and encouraging the creation of more after-school tutoring programs.  Imagine being a low-performing student in a failing school, amidst many similarly unskilled peers (from 7 am to 2 pm), being taught by unmotivated teachers with worksheet packets at the ready to fill a quiet afternoon.  Enticing, yes?

How does one plan to tackle the shortcomings of teachersin low-income areas?  According to Obama’s plan, there will be “$100 million to stimulate teacher education reforms built on school-university partnerships and intensive professional learning for veteran teachers.”  So, Obama isn’t going to encourage the firing of anyone currently employed, and is going to spend $100 million (less than the international aid given to Kenya) in nebulous “training” for college partnerships?  A friend of this writer attended a program akin to this model in Louisiana, where one session consisted of spending three hours writing down every sixth word in the Literature Textbook in order to assess the book’s “reading level”.  Should we have more Practitioner Programs which, according to Obama, would “require evidence of teacher performance and outcomes in promoting student learning?”  Unless Obama initiates a national standard that is measurable and enforceable for these programs, it will lead to more bureaucratic box-checking for bad teachers and time wasted for good ones.

In January, 2008, President Bush said he wanted public dollars to fund moving students from public to private schools, and declared, “I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants For Kids,” and called for the “liberation” of students from failing schools.  Liberal bloggers were horrified.  But how is Obama’s recent pre-election infomercial, where he highlighted the swing-state-residing Johnston Family – a white flight family who moved to the suburbs for “good schools” – any better?  With polls predicting his victory, Obama didn’t call attention to a PTA mother who fought for high expectations – that would have been too combative.  He didn’t talk about a working father who chose to stay in Kansas City and demand a better school system – his vote was secure.  His infomercial didn’t showcase a classroom of drowsy-eyed black kids or a burnt-out teacher – the campaign didn’t want to upset the unions.  What was the message delivered by the “white-flight” Johnstons?

If you run away from schools with problems (especially if you are white, have the means to do so, and reside in a swing state), you get rewarded by becoming the focus of a sob story.  What message does this send to the working-class families?  Languish voicelessly in poor schools with your bootstraps ready for pulling?  This writer is uninspired.  Obama does have the opportunity to make radical changes, and one can see the embryo of vision in his proposals.  Schools in our poor communities are not broken, they are shattered; the perpetuation of the status quo through the analgesic of moderate reforms is more than unacceptable, it is criminal.


Brett Warnke graduated from Indiana University in 2005.  He then joined Teach for America in the Greater New Orleans Corps as a secondary English teacher.  He is currently in the NSSR.