For their first date, a y oung law intern named Barack Obama took his future wife to a meeting he was conducting in a church basement for poor, single, mostly African American mothers—an outgrowth of his work as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. As Michelle Obama recalls, the purpose of this meeting was to help these mothers see that it was “the job of ordinary people in organizing” to narrow the gap between “the world as it is and the world as it should be.”
No doubt President Obama would say today that narrowing that same gap between “what is and what should be” continues to animate his approach to educational reform. To be sure, his administration has committed stimulus funds for much-needed expansion of early education, more equal access to college, and moderation of the dis-astrous impact of state budget shortfalls on public education, including saving thousands of teachers’ jobs. He has also rejected the wholesale expansion of voucher programs, which for a generation have threatened to raid the public treasury to fund private tuition.
Obama also talks about accountability. In part, he is likely responding to the demands of parents, similar to those mothers in Chicago, who want the systemic racism of our public schools uprooted and transformed. But how is that to be accomplished?
Despite enticing indications to the contrary during the campaign, there is a disturbing overlap between Obama’s educational policies and those of George W. Bush—including an undiminished, and largely uncritical, commitment to standardized tests and charter schools; a continuing failure to address profound funding inequities between school districts; and a zestful invocation of schooling as a weapon of global economic competition. The new Title I School Improvement guidelines propose investing millions in strategies like the wholesale replacement of school staff (“reconstitution”) and turning over schools to for-profit education management organizations. These top-down policies have no track record of success as school improvement strategies. They are more likely to seriously weaken the public system. The emerging contours of this administration’s educational program yield little ev idence of that youthful community organizer who believed that the job of ordinary people is to narrow the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
This is unfortunate, because American schools would benefit from the leadership of a president who, actively inspired by our rich national heritage of grassroots organizing for equal and democratic schools, acted as an educational “community organizer-in-chief.” Instead, President Obama has fashioned a persona as our educational “entrepreneur-in-chief,” invoking a rhetoric and championing policies that look toward market competition rather than democratic participation as the linchpin of educational reform.