THE BLOG
06/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thank You, Arne Duncan

New York City Mayor Michael "Moneybags" Bloomberg had what he thought was a great idea. When New York State was turned down for a federal "Race to the Top" Grant, Bloomberg decided that the city should apply on its own in the next round. After all, his own views on dismantling public education are much more in line with the Obama-Duncan Plan and probably would attract support.

But I am puzzled. The first round winners, Delaware and Tennessee, received awards of $100,000 and $500,000. That is chump change to Moneybags, a billionaire sixteen times over. If he really cares about education in the city, why doesn't he create his own grant program and give the money to the city schools himself?

At the end of the novel Animal Farm, the animals were confused. They could no longer tell the pigs from the human farmers. I have a similar problem. When it comes to education policy, I can no longer tell Bloomberg-Klein and Obama-Duncan apart. That's why I want to thank Arne Duncan for clarifying things for me. There really isn't much of a difference.

Politicians like to focus on test scores and place blame on teachers, but the real problem is that American schools have been devastated by the national economic crisis. Not only is funding sharply reduced, but problems faced by students, teachers, and families are much greater. President O, it is difficult to preach hope to students and convince them to study harder when parents are unemployed, homes are in foreclosure, and the future looks bleak. It is also difficult for teachers to preach hope when they are totally demoralized. Maybe you and Arne will understand it if I explain in basketball-speak. Think of try to motivate a sub-500 team with no chance of making the playoffs that is just going through the motions.

Banks and big companies got bailed out by the federal government, but not state governments and social service programs. State budgets are deep in the red and school budgets are being cut, cut again, and cut deeper. Thousands of teachers face lay-off, and that is just in New York State and city alone. No government official has projected a figure nationwide, the numbers are too scary, but 100,000 teacher lay-offs might not be off mark.

Faced with a budgetary disaster of historic proportions, state governments turned in desperation for federal help. But instead of confronting the reality facing education, the Obama-Duncan Dream Team offered the states the opportunity to compete for federal "Race to the Top" grant money. The payoffs are so small, even for the "winners," it will amount to pissing in the ocean.

But at least "Race to the Top" makes it clear how Obama-Duncan see the future. I never thought of Tennessee and Delaware as models for anything, except now it seems their bureaucrats are really good at filling out paper work. After all, they did not win because they were good. It seems they beat out 38 other states and the District of Columbia to win a share of $4 billion in federal education grants, because they convinced the Big O and his friend Arne that they have "bold plans" for overhauling their public school systems.
Georgia and Florida came in third and fourth, two more states with championship quality school systems, but neither won any money.

So what does Big O see as the solution to what plagues the schools? He is trying to force states to expand the number of charter schools, evaluate teachers based on student test scores, computerize data, and all of this will magically turn around low performing schools. The highlight of Delaware's winning proposal was a new state law that allows teachers rated as "ineffective" for three years to be removed from the classroom, even if they have tenure. I don't believe in protecting the incompetent, but does anyone in either the Bloomberg or Obama administrations really believe that firing a few teachers will ensure that every student in the United States receives a 21st century education?

Tennessee secured its award by passing a law that allows the state to intervene in failing schools, another unlikely solution. Has anyone ever heard of Roosevelt, NY or Newark, NJ? New York and New Jersey have been intervening in their schools for decades, but have made little improvement. It seems there is no magic pill that improves test scores in districts where students live is dire poverty and have immense needs that the schools can only begin to address.

It seems the New York State application was graded poorly partly because there is a legal cap on the number of charter schools run with public money but exempt from many union and curricular rules. That also clarifies things. To get the grant you need to pass rules but remove oversight. Wait a minute! Aren't rules without oversight what allowed the banks to act irresponsibly and caused the entire economic mess?

That brings us to the unions. I have had my differences with the leadership of the New York City United Federation of Teachers over the years, but as a teacher and parent I knew we depended on them to keep city officials in line. The only thing that stops Mayor Moneybags and his lackeys at the Department of Education from stuffing more kids into rooms is the teacher contract, and believe me the city has tried to raise class size repeatedly in the past. The union may protect some incompetents by demanding due process from a mayor committed to arbitrary authoritarianism, but the same rules that protect them also protect tens of thousands of excellent teachers from administrative harassment.

Upper middle class professional families with children in public schools may be worried that all the talk of equity and opportunity for everyone will interfere with the special privileges and little niche programs with extra funding they have received from Bloomberg-Klein. But don't worry. Arne Duncan understands your pain. When he was Chicago school chief he had an assistant maintain a top-secret list of the well connected whose children were helped to get into the best schools. The list was maintained by a Duncan aide who was rewarded for his service by being made chief of staff to the president of the Chicago Board of Education. According to a Chicago Tribune article, the initials "AD" appeared on the list fifty times next to the names of people seeking special favors.

I was blind, but now I see. All I can say is, thank you, Arne Duncan.