Urban Education Policy under Obama

Urban Education Policy under Obama

Pauline Lipman

To cite this article: Pauline Lipman (2015) Urban Education Policy under Obama, Journal of Urban

Affairs, 37:1, 57-61, DOI: 10.1111/juaf.12163

To link to this article:  https://doi.org/10.1111/juaf.12163

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?journalCode=ujua20






Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, under the Reagan administration, there has been an evolving shift in federal education policy from a focus on equity to economic competitiveness, markets, standards, and top-down accountability. This agenda was articulated in Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000 and encoded in George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, ushering in an era of high-stakes testing, privatization, and “school choice.” When Barack Obama was elected president, many educators were hopeful his administration would pivot again toward equity and the reinvigoration of public education, especially in urban districts serving large proportions of lowincome students of color. However, President Obama not only embraced the neoliberal agenda, he capitalized on the economic crisis, particularly the fiscal crisis of cities and states, to escalate and expand it, embedding it in federal education funding and new federal policy, prompting education historian,DianeRavitch,tocalltheObamaadministration,“Bush’sthirdtermineducation.”Although framed as national policy, the impact is most felt in urban school districts, particularly in schools serving low-income students of color.

In The New Political Economy of Urban Education (Lipman, 2011), I argue that these neoliberal policies are constitutive of the contested dynamics of power that shape the urban context, especially the role of capital and race in neoliberal economic, political, and spatial restructuring. Here, I situate my commentary on urban education policy under Obama at the intersection of neoliberal urbanism, race, and economic crisis—particularly the (constructed) fiscal crisis of cities.


Obama signaled his preference for markets by appointing Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, to head the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Chicago, under the tenure of Mayor Richard M. Daley, launched many of the market-based and business-oriented policies that have shaped the neoliberal restructuring of public education in the U.S. These policies became key features of the Obama administration’s major education initiatives. The first thing Duncan did as Secretary of Education was fly to Detroit and tell that economically floundering city that the federal government was there to help Detroit’s ailing public schools. . . if they would follow the Chicago model: close “failing” schools, expand privately-run charter schools, institute mayoral control and business management of schools. The Detroit visit was an early indication of the direction the administration would take in its Race to the Top federal funding competition. In a telling commentary, the Broad Foundation, a venture philanthropy founded by billionaire Eli Broad, wrote in its 2009– 2010 annual report, “The election of President Barack Obama and his appointment of Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, as the U.S. Secretary Of Education, marked the pinnacle of hope for our work in education reform. In many ways, we feel the stars have finally aligned” (Broad Foundation, 2009, p. 9). Broad has deployed millions of dollars to promote charter schools and to

Direct correspondence to: Pauline Lipman, University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Education, 1040 W Harrison St M/C 147, Chicago, IL 60607. E-mail: [email protected].

JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS, Volume 37, Number 1, pages 57–61.

Copyright             2015 Urban Affairs Association All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

ISSN: 0735-2166.    DOI: 10.1111/juaf.12163 58 II JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS II Vol.37/No.1/2015

train a cadre of school district leaders to bring business management to public education, especially in urban districts.

Indeed, Obama’s initiatives line up with Broad, Gates, Walton and other market-oriented venture philanthropies and with conservative corporate think tanks such as the American Enterprise and Fordham Institutes. Building on “reforms” launched in Chicago, market logics, privatization, and economic competitiveness drive the administration’s education policy from preschool through higher education. Obama’s signature Race to the Top (RTTT) economic stimulus funding for education, and his Blueprint for Reform proposal for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA),incentivizemarketorientedpolicies,especiallyindistrictswithlargenumbersofschools labeled as “failing.”


Urbanschooldistrictsarestrugglingwithlackofresources,poverty,lossofcommunityinstitutions, persistent racial inequality, and the effects of a legacy of inequity. Early in his administration, Obama might have taken advantage of the economic stimulus to support additional funding for school-based health clinics and wrap-around services, smaller class sizes, culturally relevant teaching, improved instructional resources for underfunded schools, and programs that prepare community members to teach in urban schools—all demonstrated interventions that address some of the inequitable opportunities and outcomes in urban schools. Instead, he chose to use the economic crisis to further the neoliberal restructuring of public education, with significant impact on urban school districts. Race to the Top is a competitive $4.35 billion economic stimulus grant to states. Developed in collaboration with the Gates Foundation, RTTT awards new funds to states that agree to four “assurances”: improve teacher quality and distribution, strengthen standards and assessments, improve data collection, and turn around low-performing schools. Although only 12 states had received RTTT grants as of May 2013, the carrot of federal funding in a moment of economic recession leveraged 33 state legislatures to change their laws in line with RTTT guidelines. Behind these seemingly commonsense requirements are “landmines” that education writer Stan Karp calls “defining features of the administration’s reform plans: linking test scores to teacher evaluation and compensation; rapid expansion of charter schools; development of data systems that facilitate remote control of schools and classrooms; and aggressive intervention for schools with low test scores, including closures, firing of staff, and various forms of state and private takeovers” (Karp, 2010). Although RTTT is not an explicit urban policy, the primary impact of these mandates is on urban school districts with majorities of low-income students of color.

The Blueprint for Reform further codifies this agenda in federal policy, calling for school choice (expand charter schools, turnaround schools,1 and other privately-run public schools), new data systems to track teacher performance and evaluate teachers based on student performance, privately operated teacher preparation programs (e.g., Teach for America), and education geared to labor force needs. Rather than address the inequitable funding of urban (and some rural) school districts that serve large percentages of low-income students, the administration’s proposal for revising the ESEA expands the competitive grants strategy, with incentives for RTTT-type “reforms.” This includes competitive grants for the $14 billion Title I program for high-poverty schools. In 2012, the administration expanded RTTT competitive grants to local education agencies, awarding 16 cities, metropolitan areas, and consortia of charter schools a total of $400 million over four years.

The administration aims to restructure pre-kindergarten through higher education to serve U.S. economic competitiveness. Obama frequently uses the presidential bully-pulpit to remind the public, “Our future is on the line. The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. To continue to cede our leadership in education is to cede our position in the world” (Obama, 2010). Concretely, the DOE directs federal education funding and programs to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (STEM) and to new curriculum standards and data to align schools and classrooms with corporate manpower needs. The DOE also requires new data systems and standards that steer and monitor teaching and learning in line with economic competitiveness goals. This is accomplished through the new Common Core Standards, which are being implemented

II UrbanEducationPolicyUnderObama II 59

in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The Common Core, developed with funding by the Gates Foundation, aligns curriculum, assessments and text books with work force and college requirements, particularly in STEM fields. Even progressive initiatives, such as expansion of preschool, are shaped byeconomiccompetitivenessandnarrowmeasuresofeducation“effectiveness.”Preschoolexpansion includes more high-stakes testing and focuses narrowly on school-ready skills, despite counter recommendations of early childhood educators.

Under DOE guidelines, school closings, termination of entire teaching staffs, charter school expansion, and other forms of private and state takeovers of schools are approved actions for “failing” schools. This continues Bush-era strategies of imposing top-down mandates on schools and communities rather than developing research-based interventions in collaboration with school communities and educators. Overall, these interventions are not supported by research and ignore documented strategies for improving schools serving low-income students and students of color (see Communities for Excellent Public Schools, 2010).

Obama’s policies have provided support for closing hundreds of public schools in African American and Latino urban neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of unionized teachers, and expansion of charter schools and other privatized education services. In interaction with other urban policies, they contribute to community destabilization and further disinvestment in some areas and gentrificationofothers(Lipman,2011).In2013alone,Chicagoclosed50publicschools;Philadelphia closed 23. Many of the schools were anchors in communities struggling with decades of public and private disinvestment, loss of public housing, high unemployment, home foreclosures, and poverty. With the endorsement of the DOE, mayoral control of urban school districts is now the order of the day, allowing mayors, often in partnership with corporate civic organizations (e.g., Commercial Club of Chicago) to fast track neoliberal education restructuring without democratic oversight. Following the Chicago model, corporate CEOs and managers run urban districts, infusing business ideologies and practices into all aspects of schooling.

Charter schools are the principle mechanism to open up public education to the market. The Blueprint for Reform provides competitive grants to states, charter school authorizers, charter management organizations, districts, and nonprofit organizations, to start or expand charter and other non-public schools. Through grants and the National Charter School Resource Center, the DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement supports the creation, replication, and expansion of charter schools. Charter schools are also one of the DOE’s approved forms of school improvement for persistently “failing” schools, and Duncan and Obama use their public platform to promote charter schools as a way to reform education. Proclaiming “National Charter Schools Week” in May 2012, Obama claimed “charter schools serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country.”

Yet, there is little evidence to support the efficacy of charter schools overall. The most authoritative national study found that while 17% give students superior education opportunities compared with comparable public schools, 44% perform no differently, and 37% are significantly worse (CREDO, 2009).Chartersalsodrawresourcesawayfromotherdistrictschoolsandtendtoskimoffacademically stronger students and more active parents, while serving fewer English language learners, and special education students (Credo, 2009). There is also evidence they push out students they find hard to educate (Miron, Urschel, & Saxton, 2011). Despite some community-based charter schools, the market is increasingly dominated by national charter school chains, and there is little evidence that overall charters are more innovative than traditional district schools (Fabricant & Fine, 2012). Highly publicized “models” operate with an infusion of external funding and resources not available to most public schools.


The recession has provided an opportunity to capitalize on crisis conditions and further open up the city to neoliberal experimentation (Peck, Theodore, & Brenner, 2012), including acceleration of school closings and privatization on grounds of fiscal austerity. Cities across the U.S. are slashing school budgets, laying off teachers, and closing schools to plug budget deficits—even as they continue with taxation policies that protect corporate profits and profits from financial transactions


while providing tax subsidies to corporations and real estate developers (Peck, 2012). As education policies intersect with urban austerity politics, their impact on cities, and specifically on low-income communities of color, reaches beyond schools. Indeed, in Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, education is the leading edge of urban austerity politics. School closings and charter expansion in those cities further destabilize low-income communities bearing the brunt of foreclosures, intensified poverty, job loss, and cuts in public services and programs (Lipman, 2011).

Public schools are critical public spaces in economically devastated neighborhoods. The economic crisis has given impetus to dramatically increase school closings in African American communities in particular, compounding neighborhood destabilization and laying the ground for future real estate developmentandcharterexpansion.(Chicago’sMayorEmanuelhaspromisedatleast50newcharters inthenextfiveyears.)Thisamountstotheappropriationofblackurbanspaceforcapitalaccumulation with charter expansion a vast new investment sector. As reported in Reuters (Simon, 2012), investors are “pouring private equity and venture capital into scores of companies that aim to profit by taking over broad swaths of public education.” Detroit’s fiscal crisis provided a warrant for the state to close schools as a lever to clear disinvested neighborhoods that are “too expensive” to maintain. African American homeowners are to be relocated and the land banked or repurposed for new investment as part of a larger plan to “right size” the city for a new round of capital accumulation (Pedroni, 2011).

This is a politics of disposability directed to marginalized urban populations of color. As a result of the 2013 school closings, one Chicago community no longer has any neighborhood public elementary schools. Charter school chains, staffed by short-term, untrained novices and online learning companies will provide much of the schooling in areas that are largely abandoned by the state. As dozens of Detroit public schools closed, high school students reported some classes with 63 students.

Appointed school boards, composed of corporate CEOs, bankers, and real estate magnates (Chicago) or state appointed officials (Detroit) decide on the fates of thousands of black and Latino school children. Yet there is little evidence that appointed boards are more effective at governing schools or improving student achievement (Hess, 2008). They are, however, strategically important for mayors to streamline the implementation of unpopular initiatives to close and privatize schools and rein in teacher unions. This is a version of neoliberal urban governance by exclusion, a “form of economic, spatial and symbolic violence against the poor where hegemonic actors do not see the potential, need or possibility of organizing a more inclusionary enrollment strategy” (Davies, 2010, p. 25).

The Obama administration has expanded neoliberal restructuring of urban education. This contributes to disinvestment and destabilization of low-income communities of color and facilitates appropriation of black urban space, in particular, for capital accumulation. Despite the DOE’s emphasis on evidence-based reform, these policies find little support in education research. They do however, further political agendas to expand education markets and privatization of public goods in line with broader neoliberal urban restructuring.


1 The principal and at least 50 percent of the staff are replaced and the school may be run by a private operator.


Broad Foundation (2009). Annual Report. Retrieved from http://www.broadfoundation.org/asset/101–2009.10% 20annual%20report.pdf

Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) (2009, June). Multiple choice: charter school performance in 16 states. Retrieved from http://credo.tanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_EXECUTIVE% 20SUMMARY.pdf

Communities for Excellent Public Schools (July 28, 2010). Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration’s School Turnaround Policies. Santa Monica, CA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.cepsourschools.org/

II UrbanEducationPolicyUnderObama II 61

Davies, J. (2010). Neoliberalism, governance and the integral state. Paper presented at Critical Governance Conference, University of Warwick, 13–14 December. Retrieved from http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/ projects/orthodoxies/papers/

Fabricant, M. & Fine, M. (2012). Charter schools and the corporate makeover of public education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hess, F. M. (2008). Assessing the case for mayoral control of urban schools, Education Outlook (4). Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

Karp,   S.  (2010).  School   reform   we   can’t   believe   In.   Rethinking   Schools.  Retrieved   from     http://www.


Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York: Routledge.

Miron, G., Urschel, J., & Saxton, N. (2011). What makes KIPP work? A study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance. Kalamazoo, MI: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education and Study Group on Education Management Organizations, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Obama, B. (2009, March 10). Remarks by the President to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on a Complete and Competitive American Education. Retrieved from http://thisweekwithbarackobama.blogspot.com/ 2009/03/president-obamas-speech-on-education.html

Peck, J. (2012). Austerity urbanism: American cities under extreme economy. City, 16(6), 626–655.

Peck, J., Thoedore, N., & Brenner, N. (2012). Neoliberalism Resurgent? Market Rule after the Great Recession. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(2), 265–288.

Pedroni, T. (2011). Urban shrinkage as a performance of whiteness; Neoliberal urban restructuring, education, and racial containment in the post-industrial, global niche city. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(2), 203–216.


Pauline Lipman is professor of Educational Policy Studies and Director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education (CEJE), University of Illinois at Chicago. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on race and class inequality in education, globalization, and political economy of urban education, particularly the relationship of education policy, urban restructuring, and the politics of race. She is the author of numerous journal articles, book chapters, and policy reports on these topics. Her newest book is The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. As Director of CEJE she conducts collaborative research with parents and community organizations to investigate educational inequalities and injustices and to foreground the perspectives of parents and community members.

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