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Obama's Speech to Congress: So Why Am I Skeptical?

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Obama's speech last week to Congress has been described as a "wake up call" -- with its aggressive and ambitious proposals to boost spending on education -- including $30 billion to avoid further teacher layoffs, and $30 billion more to renovate school facilities. These funds that are desperately needed as more than 2/3 of states and districts are suffering big cuts and increases in class size this fall -- with nearly a quarter million fewer school staff employed in June 2011 compared to two years before. As the President said:

"Pass this jobs bill, and thousands of teachers in every state will go back to work. These are the men and women charged with preparing our children for a world where the competition has never been tougher. But while they're adding teachers in places like South Korea, we're laying them off in droves. It's unfair to our kids. It undermines their future and ours. And it has to stop. Pass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong."

Obama's proposal could save as many as 280,000 educators' jobs, according to administration officials. Not only is this good education policy but also crucial to improving our economy in the short run as stimulus, and over the long-term, because education is the best investment we can make.

So why do I feel so ambivalent? Why do I fear that this is campaign-mode Obama rather than real-life proposal put forward to help kids?

First of all, as many have noted, it appears that these proposals have little chance of passing, given the vehement opposition of the GOP-dominated House to any real economic stimulus program. The only school construction proposal that most Republican House members seem to favor is for funds to build more charter schools, rather than district public schools.

But beyond that, we've witnessed several years of this administration generally unconcerned about rising class sizes and teacher layoffs. The truth is that for the past two years, their priorities have pointed in an entirely different direction.

First we saw Arne Duncan and the US DOE put forward a "Race to the Top" program that focused on charter school expansion, more testing and data collection, merit pay schemes, and financing a huge growth in the bureaucracy -- all of which are likely to further drain the resources of our cash-strapped public schools, rather than help them improve or maintain a favorable learning environment in the classroom.

Similarly, the administration's euphemistically named School Improvement Grant program focuses on firing teachers at struggling schools, and privatizing management, rather than proven ways to improve instruction such as reducing class size.

In February of 2010, both Duncan and Obama actually supported the Superintendent of Central Falls when she threatened to fire the entire teaching force of her district's public schools -- which also happens to be Rhode Island's poorest and most economically depressed area.

Then last November, Duncan went before the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and echoed the right-wing line that budget cuts to education should be enthusiastically accepted as the "new Normal":

"My message is that this challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo."

What did he suggest as the best most "smart" and innovative way to drastically cut budgets? That states and districts should adjust by allowing "smartly targeted increases in class size."

In March, this was followed by Duncan telling a group of journalists and think tankers that it didn't matter to him how much parents wanted smaller class sizes. As recounted by Rick Hess of American Enterprise Institute, Duncan said, "Class size has been a sacred cow and I think we need to take it on."

Clearly, Duncan was aligning himself with privateers like Rick Hess of the conservative Fordham Institute, who would like nothing better than to drastically defund public education, and venture philanthropists like Bill Gates, who while sending their own children to elite schools with small classes, vehemently oppose the same level of attention and opportunity for other people's children.

Then Rick Perry announced he was running for President, Obama's approval ratings began to fall, and Duncan attacked the Texas Governor for... you'll never guess what. Yes, increasing class size!

In an interview, Duncan claimed that Texas's school system "has really struggled" under Perry, that he felt "very, very badly for the children there," since they "have seen massive increases in class size" during Perry's term as governor.

As many observers subsequently pointed out, he picked the wrong state. Texas is one of the few places where reasonably small classes have been maintained, thanks primarily to the state's class size caps for grades K-4 of 22 students or less, first proposed by the Perot Commission and pushed through the state legislature by then-Gov. Mark White in 1984. Though there was a bitter legislative battle this spring over whether the caps would be retained, they were saved through strong advocacy efforts of parents and teachers.

As Politifact confirmed, classes in the early grades in Texas have averaged 20 or less consistently throughout Perry's term as governor, and there's no evidence so far that class sizes have increased in the middle or upper grades. The caps in grades K-4 have contributed to the fact that black and Hispanic students in Texas have long been among the highest achievers in their category on the NAEPs since 1992 -- the first year that these national assessments were given, and indeed, score higher than their peers in the Chicago public schools that Duncan previously led.

This is not surprising, since research shows that class size reduction tends to benefit poor and minority children the most.

No credit should go to Perry for this or for Texas' smaller classes, as he has cut the budget for education sharply in recent years, and achievement has largely stagnated during his term, but it was the height of hypocrisy for Duncan to attack Perry for a position he himself had espoused just a few weeks before.

Now the administration's poll numbers continue to sink, the economy stagnates, and our children are returning to a new school year, subjected to class sizes of 30 or 40 or more. So perhaps the administration sees an advantage in responding to parents' legitimate distress about the irreversible damage to their children's education and prospects in life.

But there are plenty of signs that even now, their concerns are not altogether sincere.

Duncan visited Detroit last week, following Governor Rick Snyder's announcement that the head of the Michigan new state-run Education Achievement Authority would be John Covington, who will have complete power over the state's struggling schools, with the power to cancel union contracts and override duly elected school board members. Covington abruptly quit running Kansas City's schools this fall, right after he ordered that "selected" teachers should have their class sizes increased to 37 students or more -- in open emulation of the Hess/Gates/Duncan doctrine.

On Thursday, on the same day Obama gave his speech to Congress, Duncan expressed great optimism about Detroit schools, saying that it could become the fastest-improving urban district in the country, because there is " an alignment and a commitment, an urgency, a willingness to challenge the status quo."

Yes, it will take more than Obama's speech to Congress last week to convince many of us that the President and his education secretary are sincere in their commitment to our children and the need to prevent further devastating class size increases; and that their hearts and minds are really in the right place.

This post has been modified since its original publication.