Mr. President, Can We Talk about Education?

Dear President Obama,

I am still so very glad to wake up every morning to find you are still president. I worked hard to help make that happen, especially because the Affordable Care Act made a difference to me as it did for millions of people. But I’d like to talk to you about something else that is very important to me: education.

Education is not your strong point. Now, I understand you’re pretty busy with Iran and the fiscal cliff and all of this nonsense with Generals Petraeus and Allen, but that’s why you appoint people who you trust to implement what is best for the country. So I need to clue you in on something that millions of public school teachers, parents, and scholars already know: Arne Duncan is not your guy.

I can tell you this personally as my son briefly went to the same Chicago Public School as the Duncan children. With my own ears I heard him scold our PTA for not raising enough money to hire aides for his child’s classroom. “This is how public schools are going to pay for things,” he insisted. “Other schools are doing it and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

At the time I thought, “This is the philosophy of the guardian of public education in Chicago? If parents want aides in the classroom they must pay for it?”

So last May, when Chicago schools’ chief Jean Claude Brizard stunned a panel of educators by announcing he was in favor of using federal funds (i.e., vouchers) for private education, I was not surprised. His predecessor – now the person leading education policy in this country – had already determined that the future of public schools is privatization. In Chicago, Arne Duncan’s “Renaissance 2010” accelerated the privatization of the public school system by blaming teachers for low performing schools and expanding the number of charter schools.

Now he’s taken that campaign nationwide.  “Race to the Top” told schools they had to compete for federal funds. His “reform” policies opened the door to Astroturf organizations like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. As Bill Ayers and Diane Ravitch have already pointed out, the “reforms” pushed by these organizations fly in the face of research on key issues like standardized testing and the impact of poverty on learning. They are chasing out good teachers and looking for private organizations to run schools.

Mr. President, you said you would protect our senior citizens and not privatize social security; why won’t you protect our children? I thought the idea of a public school system was that it makes sense to have an educated population, and that education is something that should be a basic right and not a privilege.

I spent most Saturdays in October in a swing state trying to get you re-elected. I spent three three days before the election in Wisconsin getting out the vote. Do you know why? Yes, to re-elect you, but also I because I believe in the democratic process. It warmed my heart to see mothers making their children vote, to see a young woman spend an hour explaining to her younger sister why it was important to go vote.

That is what democracy looks like: me, pounding the pavements for weeks and those young people going out to vote. It’s not about heavily-funded Astroturf organizations with their own political agendas. The problem is, Mr. Duncan is listening to hedge fund managers like Bruce Rauner and crowing union-busters like Jonah Edelman while shutting the rest of us out.

You have promised to listen to us, the people who worked hard for you, this time. Take a look at your own children to see how large their classroom is and how many tests they take and how many children in their class go to school hungry. Do what you’re good at: read, listen, ask around, think – and I mean really think – about the meaning and future of public education.

Then have a chat with Arne Duncan about the purpose and meaning of public education. As president, you set the tone and policy. It’s time you educate yourself on education.

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