January 4, 2009 -- When Senator Clinton was still a candidate for president, both she and Senator Obama sought counsel from an educator friend of mine. He told them both not to say anything about education. No matter what you say, he told me that he told them, you're going to make a lot of people mad (he made his point in more colorful language). Oh, man, how right can you be?
In the run-up to Obama's picking a secretary, two sides formed in a debate over the desiderata for a secretary and might have duked it out, but only one side was permitted to throw punches in public. It wasn't Dems vs. the GOP. Indeed, that huge sucking sound you hear is Republicans trying to control their laughter. The two groups are largely within the Democratic Party. They might duke it out still because some see secretary of education-designate, Arne Duncan, as the right man in the right place and others see him as evil incarnate (though not quite so incarnate as Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee). If not evil incarnate, a man to further the corporatization of education and the commodification of childhood.
The winners in the fight-that-wasn't were the people who managed to get themselves anointed by the mainstream media--or "corporate media" as some call them--as reformers. They thereby once again illustrated George Lakoff's powerful concept of "frame." This gang consisted of Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and, weirdly enough, Al Sharpton. Really. It is useful to remember that "reform" means only to reshape, not necessarily improve.
The losers were actual educators in schools and universities who were mostly not permitted in the ring. The "reformers'" advocates managed to label their opposition candidate, Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond, as an instrument of the "status quo" and as a teachers union tool. Ludicrous? Yes, but it happened.
In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter wrote that Obama knew "that if he chooses a union-backed candidate such as Linda Darling-Hammond...he'll have a revolt on his hands from the swelling ranks of reformers." Swelling ranks? Says who? Edward Sarby in the New Republic asked "How dangerous is Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama's old-school, pro-union education guru?" "Worst case scenario," answered Mike Petrilli of the Right-wing Fordham Institute. The Washington Post said the secretariat was "A Job for a Reformer." It described the choice as between "warring camps within the Democratic party, those pushing for radical restructuring and those more wedded to the status quo." After Obama selected Duncan, the Post ran a puff piece on his sterling qualities.
The "reformers" panicked at one point because Darling-Hammond, who had served as Obama's proxy in several education policy debates, was named to head the education sector of his transition team. They worried this signaled future elevation to secretary. David Brooks in the New York Times said, "I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them...The stakes are huge. For the first time in decades there is real momentum for reform." Brooks apparently has been holed up in the same cave as bin Laden, only longer, say, 50 years.
Aside from a few letters to editors and blogs, about the only published support for Darling-Hammond came from John Affeldt in the Huffington Post, Alfie Kohn in The Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle in an editorial. Fred Klonsky's blog called the one-sided and often loaded language used by the pro "reformers" bunch as "The hatchet job on Darling-Hammond." Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) emphatically agreed and headlined its take on the sad affair, "The media's failing grade on education 'debate.'"
FAIR observed, "One prominent exception to the corporate media's one-sided presentation of the education nominee was Sam Dillon's news article in the New York Times. Not only did it avoid caricaturing Darling-Hammond by citing views of both her critics and supporters, the article included some accurate media criticism:
"'Editorials and opinion articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have described the debate as pitting education reformers against those representing the educational establishment or the status quo. But who the reformers are depends on who is talking.'"
"Unfortunately," continued FAIR, "in most establishment media accounts, only one side has been allowed to do the talking."
Amen, FAIR and Sam.
Fred Klonsky's brother, Mike, suggests that Duncan, once out from under the thumb of Chicago Mayor Daley might be "neither as bad as some on the Left have predicted or as 'good' as some on the Right are hoping for." We can only hope Mike's called this one right. In the meantime, we wuz framed.