Where Is Our Community Organizer-in-Chief?

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Where Is Our Community Organizer-in-Chief?
Illustration: David Lesh

For their first date, a young 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 fora 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 evidence 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.

For example, look at the great emphasis that the president and Secretary of Education Duncan are putting on charter schools. In Duncan’s words, “The charter movement is one of the most profound changes in American education, bringing new options to underserved communities and introducing competition and innovation into the education system.”

But the charter school movement has a very mixed record in improving student achievement. A recent comprehensive study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than comparable traditional public schools, whereas 37 percent showed gains that were worse than their public school counterparts, and 46 percent showed no significant difference. Some charter schools do have a strong commitment to community involvement, democratic governance, and open access. But many others deploy exclusionary policies and function as islands of privilege.

Although Obama and Duncan’s recent call for states to weed out poorly performing charter schools was a positive development, we are troubled by their unsubstantiated faith in charters as the true source of innovation. They have constructed a misleading polarity—noncharter public schools are presented as languishing in the doldrums of “traditional” education, while charter schools are beacons of innovation and creativity. Although it is a grave error to underplay the distressed state of many urban school systems, it is also important not to overstate the modest record of innovation established by charters so far, or to ignore the many “traditional” public schools that have forged programs characterized by innovation, effectiveness, and equity.

Basing policy on this distorted picture, Obama and Duncan have insisted that states remove any caps on the number of charter schools and have proposed funneling federal dollars to charter schools but not to innovative public schools. If he were acting as an educational organizer-in-chief, Obama would insist on an approach that empowers parents, teachers, and communities, and affirmatively promotes innovation and progressive reform in neighborhood public schools rather than discriminating against noncharter public schools.

This imbalance in rhetoric and policy indicates more than an under-appreciation of individual public schools. It reflects a fundamental lack of faith in democratic school governance, and  in the capacity of urban community members and educators to forge the working relationships necessary to resolve the daunting problems faced by many school systems. This mistrust of democracy was evident in the top-down style that characterized Duncan’s tenure as CEO of Chicago’s schools. It is also evident in his advocacy of legislation to put troubled school districts under mayoral control.

The push toward mayoral control threatens to deepen the educational inequalities between cities and suburbs. Suburban school systems, largely well funded, middle-class, and white, will continue to enjoy the time-honored tradition of local democratic school governance. City school systems, largely poorly funded, low-income, and nonwhite, will increasingly find themselves left with a patchwork of charter and noncharter schools that are run by mayors and educationalCEOs, purposely removed from popular control. For our city schools, entrepreneurship will trump democracy, a process already under way in many urban areas across the country.

A community organizer-in-chief would reject this path. He would instead pursue policies that promote community participation in urban school systems and provide them with essential resources. He would nurture grassroots efforts through which community members, parents, and educators work together to transform schools, create school-based community centers, and revitalize neighborhoods—a comprehensive approach aimed at enhancing the democratic character of our educational system.

Moreover, a community organizer-in-chief would recognize that the present federal tilt toward heavy reliance on standardized tests is antidemocratic because it narrows the types of curriculum and instruction available to low-income students. He would instead support the development of accountability systems that are based on assessing meaningful intellectual tasks and that integrate reading and math into learning that encompasses both the arts and preparation for active civic engagement. Parents and communities have a right to assessments that are comprehensive and transparent—where they can see the progress children are making, and the problems that remain to be solved. Including parents and community members in the evaluation of student exhibitions and portfolios is one example of this approach.

Just as importantly, a community organizer-in-chief would insist that states provide adequate and equitable funding to schools. Instead of twisting the arms of state legislatures to unleash market-driven charter schools while ignoring gross inequities in school funding, he would require states to provide equal opportunities for all students in the areas of science and computer labs; student/teacher ratios; facilities; libraries and librarians; and art, music, and physical education programs. What is now commonplace for most affluent suburban schools would become the baseline for inner-city and rural schools.

As social justice education activists, we realize we face a critical time. Obama is being assaulted politically on many fronts—particularly in health care, but also in education. The racist and vicious nature of the attacks at town hall meetings and on talk television and radio is terrifying to many of us. We know that we have to counter these attacks.

At the same time, we can’t equate the need to defend Obama against the right wing with agreement on his education policies. We should encourage President Obama to return to his community organizing roots. But how he and his administration respond to pressure from the right will depend, in large part, on our ability to do community organizing ourselves. We need to build strong, multi-constituency coalitions that fight to protect and transform public schools so that they serve all children equitably and make education an integral part of the struggle to create the world as it should be.