ARRA Education Funds and the Crisis of Legitimacy

Governing by Carrots and Sticks: Excerpts from U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan

“If folks are playing shell games, if folks are operating in bad faith, it puts their second chance at billions of dollars in jeopardy,” he said. “We have significant carrots and sticks.” — Arne Duncan, April 15, Chicago Tribute.

In an April 1, Washington Post interview, under the banner of “New Voices of Power,” staff writer Lois Romano queries Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “So you have all this money, but, in a sense, aren’t you a little bit powerless because, in the end, the States are going to decide how to spend the money?”

Duncan: “Well, we’re going to work very, very closely with those states, and we’ve given out–we will give out over the next couple weeks billions of dollars, but we’re going to keep billions of dollars here to really watch and monitor how states do in terms of implementing these reforms.”

“Secondly, there’s unprecedented discretionary dollars, a $5-billion Race to the Top Fund where we’re going to work exclusively with those states and those districts that are really willing to challenge the status quo and get dramatically better.”

“So we’ve never had greater resources, more carrots, but also some sticks to make sure that we’re doing the right thing by children around the country.”

Lois Romano: “You talked about carrots and sticks. What are your sticks going to be?”

Duncan: “Well, again, if states aren’t doing the right thing with the stimulus package, basically they’re going to disqualify themselves from even competing for the Race to the Top Fund, and so there’s a huge financial incentive.”

During a March 24 interview with Education Week reporters Alyson Klein, Michele McNeil, and Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan was asked the following question: “Would you ever ask for money back if you found that states didn’t use it in the way you think was intended?”

Duncan: “We want to be very, very clear: If things are not going the way we like, we are going to challenge that. But … I’m much more interested in getting it right the first time, and it is absolutely in states’ best interest … to get it right the first time.”

Again Duncan is querried: “There are a couple of states [for example South Carolina] that made news because they want to reject stimulus money, especially education money. Are you working with people in those states to figure out how to possibly still get some of that stimulus money into those states, or is it going to be a dead end for you all?”

Duncan: “We are absolutely working with folks in those states who care passionately about the care of their children’s education, and there isn’t a state in the country [that] doesn’t have tremendous unmet educational need. … And so we are actually looking to be creative and work with people who have a vision and a passion for this and want to do the right thing by children.”

The reporters push Duncan: “What can you do?”

Duncan: “Stay tuned.”

Arbitrary Power against the Public & the Crisis of Legitimacy

Since being appointed Secretary of Education by President Obama, Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education have initiated a massive media campaign of interviews, speeches, and news and department press releases, a sample of which is reprinted above, which focus on how the Obama Administration will use ARRA funds to further its agenda for education, with Ducan emphasizing that “this is the President’s vision.”

Key to this campaign is the role given to “incentives” at the disposal of executives, such as Duncan, who arbitrarily use the funds to support “what they like”. “We have significant carrots and sticks,” Ducan emphasizes. This arbitrary use of large sums of the public treasury by executive and unelected officials signals a significant concentration of power and a challenge to the constitutional powers given to states. But one cannot understand the drive to increase executive power, the secretary’s emphasis on “carrots and sticks,” absent an understanding of the opposition to “the President’s vision” for education.

As outlined in speeches by both Obama and Duncan, the administration is calling for more high-stakes testing, academic sweatshops for teachers and students in the form of corporate run charter schools and more mayoral control of urban school districts against more, not less, public control over education. Yet, by the U.S. Department of Education’s own accounts, and by the accounts chronicled in decades worth of independent research on school reform, not to mention people’s own direct experience these “reforms”, none of these methods have served to improve education.

So why the continued pursuit of “reforms” that have not served the aims for which they were officially established? Why the emphasis on “carrots and sticks” or what amounts to outright bribery?

While Duncan misuses the carrot and stick idiom (as it refers to a “carrot on a stick,” where a driver would tie a carrot on a string to a long stick and dangle it in front of the donkey, just out of its reach, to induce the donkey forward) the content of bribery is clear.

To bribe means to “persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor by a gift of money or other inducement”. Importantly, bribery only makes sense in the face of a norm, standard or other basis for refusal to act in a manner desired by the person offering the bribe. What is very significant from the political point of view is that, as a form of persuasion, bribery does not rest on reasoned argument, the use of facts and logic to justify a proposed course of action. At the level of federal law and policy, bribery is a form of persuasion that rests on the open assertion of authority against public opinion: one would not need to bribe educators and locally elected officials into doing what was inherently in their interest. The use of the public treasury to bribe educators is an open admission that the path being imposed by the ruling elite cannot be justified.

Thus, the use of ARRA funds to compel educators to take up “reforms” that have already been discredited as ineffective and against voters demand for change (not more of the same Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush corporate education agenda) signals a profound legitimacy crisis. It signals a fairly broad opposition within official organizations to the wrecking of public education. The National School Boards Association has, for example, continually opposed mayoral control as both ineffective and anti-democratic. Every major education research organization, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association, has opposed in some form, to take another example, the use of high-stakes testing. Only a few weeks ago, Warrick County (Indiana) Superintendent Brad Schneider criticized the Bush-sponsored No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act as “mind-boggling” and “absurd.” And, public opinion still supports public education against privatization.

The transformation of public funds into “carrots and sticks” to be used against students, educators and parents must be rejected as an illegitimate use of power against public opinion. It must also be recognized as an admission on the part of the elite that they have no solutions to the problems in education and society. What is needed is more, not less, control over institutions that have an inherent public function.

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