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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mis-State of the Union and the Educational Future


By Michael Meranze

As expected, President Obama previewed his election year populist pivot in last night's State of the Union address.  Between his opening and closing reminder to Republicans that he had carried out stealth warfare with greater efficiency than his predecessor, he articulated a domestic agenda that aimed to present himself as the candidate of a more caring domestic future. He also spent a good deal of time discussing education.


Playing on the growing anger about inequality, the President tried to define the question of fairness in terms of  the gaps between rich and poor as opposed to the Republican insistence that the poor and the elderly were the true fat-cats of our society.  And there were elements of his domestic agenda that might prove positive if he actually carries them out: initiatives to rearrange the tax code to discourage the off-shoring of jobs and manufacturing, to make sure that Corporations pay some sort of tax, to strengthen unemployment insurance and the safety net, to turn the money saved from bringing troops home into money spent on infrastructure, and to encourage new forms of energy.  He is setting up a new board to look into financial malfeasance (although since his DOJ could have been prosecuting people for the last 3 years this looks more like a fig leaf).

Unfortunately, this was still all phrased within the same language of debt reduction with its austerity that the President has employed since he first took office and, of course, there is no guarantee that he will actually fight for any of this stuff.

In this mix, education took a prominent role.  Like Jerry Brown in his recent State of the State address, President Obama pushed hard for the centrality of education in any flourishing American Society.  But where Brown expressed skepticism about the role of educational "reformers" and standardized testing in K-12, President Obama in the State of the Union and in his accompanying "Blueprint" doubled-down on both.

Under the buzzword of allowing more leeway to schools, the President sought to expand the range of testing and also--dangerous opening--to subject schools and teachers to greater market discipline.  As the blueprint puts it, the President is "Creating new career ladders for teachers to become more effective, and ensuring that earnings are tied more closely to performance" (5).

And despite the rhetoric of freeing teachers from "teaching to the test" the upshot would simply be more varied systems of testing. (5)  This is the administration of Arne Duncan after all, so caution is in order.  Obama hit the rhetorical notes of caring about education and teaching, but without evidence that he has overcome his fondness for market solutions in education (and there was none on display) it is hard to see how this rhetoric will do more than provide a cover for the ongoing undermining of public schools. 

The President's Higher Ed discussion was equally problematic.  On the one hand, Obama reasserted his convictions on the importance of higher ed and expressed his worries about the rising amount of student debt.  He also stressed the continuing importance of research and the need to fund it.

On the other hand, his proposals do little to secure the future of higher ed or help students.  His most prominent example of his vision lies in linking community colleges closer to businesses:

Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers - places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

But as the New York Times recently reported, these partnerships primarily help businesses--not students--by training students to work for specific companies rather than giving them an education and knowledge that can be transferred if the company goes under. 

Moreover, Obama's response to the reduction of State aid to public universities is to set up new audit requirements in the name of market efficiency in order to continue to receive student loan aid.  Even his proposal to expand his tax credit for college costs while helpful is so small (capped at $10,000 for 4 years) as to be risible in the current context.  The same can be said for his proposal to require more work-study jobs.

Insofar as our aim should be to allow students to focus on their studies without condemning themselves to huge amounts of debt, what is called for is Federal Direct Funding to enable tuition to be kept down and colleges to make the investments in faculty and infrastructure that would enable the sort of creative production to overcome the ongoing creative destruction that today's capitalism glories in.

In the end the President struck important notes about the fairness and importance of investing in the future (as opposed to investing in Hedge Funds); however, he--like most of the political class--seems unable to shake the notions that austerity is necessary (except around the margins) or that we can overcome the disasters of neo-liberalism by expanding the reach of market mechanisms.

Obama's vision is more human than any of his Republican opponents' but it remains a mis-statement of the Union.

Photo: Obama State of the Union - WhiteHouse.gov

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