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Second in a three part series about education policy in the US Presidential elections

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And this is the second part of our serious evaluating the education policies of the two leading contenders for being president of the United States. This segment, as you may know if you watch part one, will be about Mitt Romney. And if you didn’t watch part one, well, go watch part one. That’s about President Obama and his record.

Now joining us to talk about Mitt Romney’s proposed education policies, joining us first of all from Buffalo, is Henry Louis Taylor Jr. He’s a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, New York. He’s a director at the Center for Urban Studies. He’s coauthor of the book Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900-1950.

And joining us from the Bronx, New York: Mark Naison. Mark is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University (I’ve already cracked a joke about that, so I won’t do it again) and the founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African American History Project. He’s the author of four books and lots of articles about African-American history, labor, sports and such, labor history, and sports and such. And he joins us from the Bronx. Thanks for joining us again, both of you.


JAY: So, Mark, starting with you, so give us a sort of basic sketch of what President Obama—I’m sorry, not President Obama. We did that—part one. Mitt Romney’s education policy—sketch us out his main proposals and then what you think of them.

NAISON: There are proposals for higher education, which I’ll get to later, but the proposals for public education involve taking existing funds which are given without conditions to the states and using them to encourage vouchers, charter schools, and the use of online learning technology, and also the use of federal incentives to actually have high-stakes tests be more important in determining whether you get funds, and also to have charter schools’ and schools’ turnaround policies continue.

Now, the interesting thing about the Romney philosophy is allegedly the Republican party is a party of small government. This policy involves more mandates and conditions attached to more federal funds than under President Obama. But all of this is used to put more resources in the hands of parents to make choices, which will then also involve religious schools, private schools, and online schools.

JAY: So what’s wrong with that? I mean, Mitt Romney would probably argue that the government-run system’s dysfunctional, so why not let the parents pick winning and losing schools and let schools kind of be run by a marketplace that parents get to run?

NAISON: Well, my argument is public education in the United States is not broken. Our social system is broken. If you look at—if you take out poverty as a factor, our public schools compare favorably with those—with almost any other nation in the world. It’s our unconscionably high child poverty rates, it’s our high rates of imprisonment, it’s our astronomical rates of youth and minority unemployment which create a context where schools in poor neighborhoods are under intolerable pressure. And by decentralizing education money, you’re going to make the problem worse, because whenever you privatize in the United States, what you do is de-skill professionals and increase the wage gap between CEOs and workers. So in communities which desperately are trying to hang on to their middle class, you destroy public education and privatize and you’re going to end up with the black and Latino middle class further diminishing, with wages and work conditions for all teachers to diminish. And that produces not only bad consequences for those neighborhoods; it produces bad consequences in terms of consumer demand for the whole of society.

JAY: Henry, I mean, I’ve been in communities like, for example, New Orleans where some of the charter schools seem to be doing fairly well and the parents got more engaged in them. Doesn’t Mitt Romney have some argument here that if you allow parents to more directly create, run schools—and Romney, of course, is saying Obama’s big problem is he hasn’t taken on the unions, and he would argue that if you break down the power of the unions, it would allow parents to create schools that are more to their liking. What’s wrong with that?


Let’s get this thing straight. First of all, the idea and notion of school choice is nothing more than a tool that is designed to attack—a frontal attack on public school systems. And let me explain what I mean. It’s not just parental choice. Let’s get that straight right now, because all of the schools that they’re talking about gaining access into will be criterion schools that are based upon your abilities to pass set tests and to meet other high standards inside of these schools. So all you’re talking about through school choice is a new, elaborate filtering system that will begin to create deeper class division inside of the neighborhoods, just as we see in cities like Buffalo.

So it also means that they will be taking away resources and placing them into special programs, scholarships that allow you to go to certain private schools, resources that allow folks to access charter schools, and attach the federal dollars to the individual, not to the schools. This means that large numbers of kids that are trapped in these schools because they’re not able to pass the qualifying examinations and the other standards are going to be left behind in even worse schools than they are today. And he’s going to do that because it’s cheaper. If you look at Romney’s analysis of the D.C. scholarship program, he makes it clear it costs us less money to provide scholarships to the higher achievers inside of these communities than it does to give money to schools to make the entire schools better. So that’s the first level.

The second level is that Romney has an anti-union philosophy. Now, Obama’s policies may inadvertently impact unions, but he’s not saying straight up, we want to get rid of unions. Romney’s program says unions should go. If the unions go, all of the protection that the teachers had then disappears, and the abilities to stop the screening process that creates a large contingency of schools that house kids that cannot pass the exams to get into the criterion schools, which will be the majority of African-Americans’ and Latino’s schools, is what will happen. And so you will actually weaken the public school system, intensify the problems inside of these neighborhoods, and create a larger pipeline between schools and prisons.

NAISON: How come no one in the Romney campaign mentions Milwaukee, which has had school choice for 20 years and has a 44 percent black male unemployment rate?

TAYLOR: With the Romney’s choice piece, it’s not just school choice. But it’s the key element to that is that it’s not real choice, because you have to pass examinations, you have to meet other standards in order to get into these schools. So when you take the resources away from schools and you give them to parents, you’re creating—you’re worsening the school system, you’re not making it better, because you don’t have real authentic and legitimate choices for everyone.

NAISON: Also, in New York City the charter schools which have had the highest performance and test scores exclude English-language learners, special needs students, and students who are deemed discipline problems. So those students then end up in the regular public schools, which are then condemned for having, you know, low scores on tests. There is no city in the country where charter schools and vouchers have led to an improvement in the education system as a whole.

And New Orleans is a special case, because so much of the black population ended up leaving after Katrina and didn’t come back. Also, if we want to look at Louisiana as a case study for educational experimentation, it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, three times higher than Iran.

JAY: Now, when I listen to you both, gentlemen, I’m struck by—Mitt Romney’s policies seem to be President Obama’s, but on steroids. Or if you want to go the other way, President Obama looks like Romney lite.

TAYLOR: There are two different elements in there. One is that Obama does not embrace school choice as the centerpiece. Obama embraces improving all of the schools, especially the lowest-achieving schools. Romney’s—so the school choice is his highest priority. That is the centerpiece of it all. The second piece is that Romney is anti-union. It’s a cornerstone. Obama is not anti-union—even though his policies may be harmful to unions, it’s not an anti-union policy.

JAY: ‘Cause under the current regime, if you watch on The Real News, we’ve done quite a few stories, and many, many teachers losing their jobs, many schools going into this turnaround where they’re firing large numbers of staff and principals. I mean, a lot of that Romney’s talking about is already happening with President Obama in office.

NAISON: Yeah, but it would happen—it would also start to happen in higher education.

JAY: Well, before we jump to higher education—.

TAYLOR: There’s a difference. And I agree with you 100 percent. And that’s what I said: there’s a difference in between—there are things that are occurring that are not as a part of that piece, but they’re unintentional aspects of it, etc., etc., etc. If you embrace anti-unionism as a centerpiece, not only have you put it in terms of steroids, you haven’t added the steroids to it, but you’ve robotized it, you’ve now got a cyborg that’s running with it. So you’re talking—.

JAY: So the difference may not be enormous, but the difference matters.

NAISON: The difference will be enormous. And I want to go back to something I said about what the difference between a non-unionized private or charter school is in terms of the administrative structure. You look at charter schools, their executive salaries are twice that of a school principal, and their staff salaries are lower, and there’s huge turnover in the staff. This is what happens every time you privatize a public resource: CEO wages go way up, worker wages and security go down. And it’s that process which has created the economic crisis we’re in. There is not enough consumer demand in the society, because of wage compression. And this will intensify the very conditions that—above and beyond its consequences for education, it will intensify the conditions which created this economic crisis.

JAY: Okay. So we’re going to go now to part three, and we’re going to—in part three we’re going to ask our guests to talk about what they’d like to see. How do we fix the public education system if both candidates—and depending on your point of view, one may be worse, enormously worse. What—you make your own decision. At any rate, I don’t think our guests are fully satisfied with either candidate’s policy. So what would they like to see? So please join us for part three of this series on The Real News Network.

And don’t forget this is our spring/summer fundraising campaign, and as long as—until we reach $100,000, you’re going to have to keep listening to me ask for you to donate. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Mark Naison is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, and the founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African-American History Project. He is the author of four books, and over one hundred articles on African American History, labor history, sports and popular culture.

Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., is one of the nation’s leading authorities on distressed neighborhoods and inner city development. A historian and urban planner, this internationally known scholar is a full professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo. He is coordinator of the Department’s Community Development and Urban Management Specialization and is the founding director of the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies (CENTER), a research, neighborhood planning and community development institute that focuses on the regeneration of distressed communities.