In a recent 60 Minutes interview, President Obama told Americans, "Don't judge me against the Almighty; judge me against the alternative." While he was referring to the potential Republican candidates in the 2012 election campaign, there is another way to interpret the phrase and to evaluate the Obama Presidency. What alternative programs could the Obama Administration have implemented if it was less committed to compromise and willing to fight harder for principles? In education, Obama had many alternatives. Obama could have studied harder; he could have been more creative; he could have played better with teachers, parents, children, and public schools; and he could have offered onto other people's children the kind of education he demanded for his own. He could have resisted turning the keys to the Treasury over to well-connected edu-companies. Based on his first three years in office, the Obama Educational Report Card Grade is a very disappointing "F" for failure. If he was a New York City high school, Mayor Bloomberg would be pushing to close him down.
Obama's educational plan not only fails according to my standards, but worse, it fails according to his own. On March 28, 2011, the president told a town hall meeting at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington DC that when schools are "just teaching the test... you're not learning about the world, you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that's not going to make education interesting." At least according to this statement, Obama values an education that promotes historical, cultural, scientific, and mathematical literacy, an education that examines the world, rather than one that just prepares students to perform on high-stakes standardized multiple choice tests.
Some of President Obama's strongest supporters from 2008 are apparently disillusioned up with his educational performance as well. Linda Darling-Hammond is a professor of Education at Stanford University and was an educational adviser to Obama's initial campaign and to the transition team after he was elected. Personally and professionally, I thought she was an excellent candidate for Secretary of Education, however Obama gave the position to Arne Duncan, his friend from Chicago and the basketball courts. Duncan, someone without any educational background, has been the major champion of Obama's signature program Race to the Top.
In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times that she co-authored, Hammond protested against No Child Left Behind mandates still being enforced by the Obama Administration. She complained that "dictates from Congress turn into gobbledygook as they travel from the Education Department to state education agencies and then to local school districts. Educators end up caught in a morass of prescriptions and prohibitions, bled of the initiative and energy that characterize effective schools." Hammond believes that "voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation" such as Race to the Top promised might have promoted school reform, however "it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate."
While I have great respect for Darling-Hammond, I think she pulls her punches and the Obama record is actually much worse. One area of potential promise that in the end proved to be a disaster for education is the Obama Administration's caving to private companies misusing educational programs to maximize profits. Essentially these companies are recruiting unqualified students and using their eligibility for federal student loans to steal tax payer money. The Obama administration vowed to stop the for-profit edu-companies from luring students with false promises about the quality of their programs and the potential for future employment. The Education Department threatened to cut off student aid funds that feed the 30 billion dollar industry. However, after a massive lobbying effort, the teeth were pulled from the new regulations.
According to The New York Times, the for-profit edu-companies "spent more than $16 million on an all-star list of prominent figures, particularly Democrats with close ties to the White House, to plot strategy, mend their battered image and plead their case." Democrats on their payroll included Anita Dunn, a close friend of President Obama and his former White House communications director, Jamie Rubin, a major fund-raising bundler for the president's re-election campaign, Richard Gephardt, the former House majority leader; John Breaux, a former Senator from Louisiana senator; and Tony Podesta, whose brother headed Obama's 2008 transition team. In addition, the chief executive of the company that Kaplan and the founder of the University of Phoenix have close ties to Democratic party leaders, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Another recent New York Times article documented the way the for-profit edu-companies, including the massive Pearson publishing concern, go unregulated by federal education officials. These companies operate online charter schools that offer substandard education to desperate families at public expense. One online program, Agora, made $72 million this school year for its parent company K12, the biggest player in the online-school business.
Although I had doubts in 2008, I voted for Barack Obama largely because high school students and teachers I worked with in New York City and suburban minority communities believed in his message of hope. They would have been disappointed in me if I did not share their hopes for a better future. But based on his school performance I am unlikely to vote for Obama again, no matter the alternative.
One option I am exploring is the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein for President. I know Stein will not be elected, but at least Stein and the Greens are discussing the major educational issues and introducing real alternatives. If Stein can get into the televised Presidential debates in the fall, maybe Obama and his Republican opponent will be forced to respond.
According to their party platform, "Greens believe every child deserves a public education that fosters critical and holistic thought, and provides the breadth and depth of learning necessary to become an active citizen and a constructive member of our society." This idea sounds like something Obama might believe in, but unfortunately it was not part of his Race to the Top program.
The Greens are "strongly opposed to the dissolution of public schools and the privatization of education" and "believe that the best educational experience is guaranteed by the democratic empowerment of organized students, their parents and communities along with organized teachers." Specifically, they want to "eliminate gross inequalities in school funding," they "oppose the administration of public schools by private, for-profit entities," and they want to provide "free college tuition to all qualified students at public universities and vocational schools."
These all sound like good ideas to me. The Greens may not represent the "Almighty," but they do offer an actual alternative to Obama's failed policies and the no-choice entrepreneurial programs being pushed by the Republican candidates.