Sometimes an idea is just too stupid to keep it all to yourself.
Ask Arne Duncan.
Sitting at his lonely desk as managing partner of the Emerson Collective, a limited liability corporation pushing school and immigration policy, he must have missed his days as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary.
After all, he was the architect of Race to the Top, a federal policy that at best wasted billions of tax dollars without helping students learn – at worst it enriched private charter school operators, standardized test and publishing corporations and private prison operators without helping kids learn.
At the dawn of 2017 with Donald Trump just beginning to flush public education down the toilet in favor of school vouchers, Duncan took to the Internet wondering how he, too, could bring harm to inner city students.
On Jan. 11, he sent an email to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a suggestion that was pure Duncan – let’s help poor children of color by making it harder to graduate!
Chicago Public School students have suffered from decades of budget cuts, teacher layoffs and even the closure of 49 schools almost exclusively in poor, black or Latino neighborhoods. A former district CEO even plead guilty to a $23 million kickback scheme.
As a result, the more than 400,000 students, 37.7% of which are black and more than 80% of which are poor, have struggled academically.
How would Arne help them? Make them submit more paperwork in order to get a diploma. They must prove that after 12th grade they’re going to college, trade school, an internship, the military or would otherwise be gainfully employed. OR ELSE they can’t graduate!
“Think about making completing a FAFSA [financial aid application] and applying to two or three colleges or the military a new CPS graduation requirement,” Duncan wrote to Emanuel in emails released to the Chicago Sun-Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. “Graduation rates continue to rise. This would signal the importance of ongoing education/training. A HS diploma is great, but not enough. No other school system I know of has taken this next step.”
Duncan followed up in February, and Emanuel replied, “Thanks. You know we are doing a version of your graduation requirement.”
Duncan responded, “Didn’t know. Good?”
No. Not good, Arne.
Because of your neoliberal meddling, when this year’s 9th graders finish their senior year, they’ll have to jump through yet another hoop to get their diplomas.
The Brookings Institute concluded in 2016 that cities like Chicago with pronounced income inequality are more likely to see higher rates of secondary school drop-outs, and lower graduation rates. An unrelated 2014 study found that Chicago ranked eighth among American cities in an index of income inequality.
None of that is helped by a new graduation requirement.
But Duncan disagrees.
He wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune praising the plan – his plan.
“Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong,” he wrote. “Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”
Wrong, Arne. It’s not a matter of school being too easy. It’s a matter of life being too hard. Imagine being an impoverished inner city student. You’re malnourished, there are few books in your home, you’re struggling to survive in a world populated by drugs and gangs, you’re suffering from post traumatic stress and your neighborhood school is closed, your teacher is laid off, there’s no tutoring, no arts or humanities classes. And they keep making you take endless high stakes standardized tests. THAT’S what makes students loose interest in school. Not because it’s too easy!
But Emanuel, a former investment banker and Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, only understands business solutions to human challenges.
When proposing this new graduation requirement, he said he got the idea from charter schools.
But of course! Private corporations running schools at public expense always know what is best!
Or is that NEVER know what is best? I guess it depends on whose interest you’re looking out for – businesspeople or students.
Emanuel doesn’t think this new policy is a major change.
“We already have around 62 percent of our kids are already either accepted into college or accepted into community college, and our goal is to make sure nobody spikes the ball at 12th grade,” Emanuel said. “We want to make 14th grade universal. That’s the new goal line.”
Is it, Rahm? It’s interesting that you’re doing this for inner city kids but no one is suggesting it for wealthy kids in the suburbs.
This statement about expectations explains why:
“Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what’s expected,” Emanuel said. “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”
So poor black and Latino kids need YOUR expectations. Is that it? It’s up to YOUR patriarchy to step in and tell them what to do with their lives after high school or else – what? They’ll just sit home on food stamps doing nothing?
This is Chicago – where police brutality is an everyday thing. Gun violence is out of control. And you think these kids and their parents live in crippling, generational poverty because they aren’t trying hard enough to get jobs or better themselves?
Those seem to be the underlying assumptions here. It’s not about giving these 18-year-olds a helping hand. It’s about pushing them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
It only takes a second of thought to realize why this is a bad idea.
The district has been cutting staff positions left and right – especially at schools serving poor students of color. Has any additional funding been budgeted to ensure district guidance counselors are in place to help students meet this goal? NOPE.
Students can graduate if they prove they’ve got a job after high school. Those aren’t exactly growing on trees – especially jobs that pay more than minimum wage. What if students can’t find employment? That’s reason to withhold their diplomas? Your academic fate should be held up because there aren’t enough positions as a fry chef!?
Sure, seniors can apply to a local community college, which according to a spokesperson for City Colleges of Chicago, lets everyone in. But what if this isn’t the path for them? Not everyone is made for college. Why is the city stepping in to demand a post graduate plan from students? Isn’t this really just a recruitment plan for these community colleges and/or the military?
Is this even legal? These kids have passed all their classes. They’ve earned a diploma. You can’t simply withhold it because their post-secondary plans don’t meet with your approval.
When the district withholds its first diploma, look for a legal challenge where taxpayers will be in the uncomfortable position of paying for legal counsel to stop a child from graduating.
This Duncan/Emanuel policy is something you might expect from a certified moron like current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (She wants teachers armed against grizzly bear attacks.)
But it should be noted that both Duncan and Emanuel are Democrats. They’re just not progressives.
You wonder why a fool like Trump won the Presidency? It’s because of neoliberal attitudes like these. Both of these men were part of the Obama administration. And Hillary Clinton was following in the same footsteps – or certainly she didn’t speak out against it.
Emanuel’s political career is backed by the same big money conservatives that back Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and Bruce Rauner. He’s a puppet of charter schools, hedge fund managers and the Koch Brothers.
In fact, his corruption was so bad that during the 2016 primary, he became an issue for Democratic Presidential contenders. Bernie Sanders actually called him out in a tweet saying: “I want to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”
Rahm had endorsed Clinton putting her in a bad position. Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s education advisor, said in private emails that Emanuel was “bad for Chicago schools.”
Like Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, O’Leary was a longtime supporter of corporate education reform policies – and so was Clinton. Hillary supported George W. Bush’s terrible No Child Left Behind – the law that changed federal education policy from focusing on equity to holding schools hostage for their standardized test scores.
O’Leary was worried about how Emanuel might hurt Clinton – especially in light of Bernie’s tweet.
In a private email to senior Clinton staff, she wrote:
“Bernie is beating us up over Rahm’s record on schools in Chicago. The Chicago school system is overloaded with debt and likely to run out of cash before the end of the school year. As a result, they are withholding their pension contributions, and laying off teachers and support staff.
I reached out to Randi W[eingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers] and she suggested that she tweet something tomorrow making it clear that Rahm and Rauner have been bad for Chicago schools and then HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] retweets.
That sounds like a toxic idea to me given Rahm’s endorsement, but I don’t think this issue is going away.
We could: (a) have HRC say something more forceful about the state working to help Chicago pay off debt so the schools can focus on teaching and learning; (b) have Randi say something more mild and we could retweet. But I do worry that short of going after Rahm, these options are not going to be satisfactory. So the (c) option is to stay silent for now.
O’Leary’s final decision was to do nothing.
And we all know how that turned out.
The worst part is that the Democrats don’t appear to have learned anything.
Here’s what Duncan had to say just this month about how Democrats should be fighting the Trump administration’s education policies:
“The federal government is disinvesting in public education and withdrawing from accountability, so states and districts have to step up and lead.”
But Arne, your administration disinvested in public schools, too. Emanuel is famous for it!
And we all know what “accountability” means to neoliberals like you. It means endless standardized testing and closing schools catering to poor students of color. It means giving charter schools, book publishers and testing corporations a blank check.
No one is going to vote for that anymore.
That is just not a viable alternative to Republican policies that take all of this to its logical conclusion.
Destroying public schools slowly is not a viable alternative to destroying them quickly. Democrats need to either discover their real progressive roots or else move aside for grassroots groups to take over.
That’s a suggestion worth sending to your buddies Rahm, Hillary and Barack via email.