It turns out President Obama may be more of a reactionary rather than a liberal when it comes to education policy. How else to explain his administration’s decision to side with anti-reform teachers unions on a fundamental issue of fairness?
In March, the Obama White House issued a statement saying it would “strongly oppose” a bill sponsored by House Speaker John Boehner that would revive and expand scholarships for low-income students in Washington, D.C. It allowed teachers unions to kill the highly successful program in early 2009, meaning that no students other than those with existing scholarships can be part of the program in the future. The Obama administration remains determined to continue to close the door of educational opportunity to D.C. students.
The bill crafted by Boehner is a model of moderation. It would authorize $60 million in federal funds over the next five years to keep the scholarship program alive, with a third of the money going to traditional D.C. public schools, a third going to charter schools, and a third to scholarship students attending private schools. But even though the D.C. public schools would get more money, Obama will have none of it. His White House statement flatly says he “opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs…because they are not an effective way to improve student achievement.”
But that’s not what the evidence shows. A performance review of the D.C. voucher program, which provided $7,500 scholarships to 1,700 low-income D.C. families to attend private schools, found that there were statistically significant academic gains. Children attending private schools with the aid of the scholarships were reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who did not receive vouchers. Voucher recipients were doing no better in math but were also doing no worse. Which means that no voucher participant is in worse academic shape than before, and many students are much better off.
“There are transition difficulties, a culture shock upon entering a school where you’re expected to pay attention, learn, do homework,” says Jay Greene, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute. “But these results fit a pattern that we’ve seen in other evaluations of vouchers. Benefits compound over time.”
The scholarships were also popular. There were more than four applicants for each scholarship, and parents hailed the fact that the private schools their children were able to attend were safer and imposed better discipline. Many prominent black officials support restoring the vouchers, including former mayors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams. D.C. Council chairman Kwame Brown and a majority of the D.C. Council sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressing solid support the program. “We believe we simply cannot turn our backs on these families because doing so will deny their children the quality education they deserve.”
Their letter failed to move Secretary Duncan, who continues to oppose vouchers. “We have to be more ambitious. I don’t want to save five children from a failing school and watch the other 495 drown,” he says. But that sounds like an argument for expanding the D.C. voucher program, not ending it.
Indeed, a small but growing number of Democrats are fed up with their party’s lockstep opposition to vouchers, a position dictated by their powerful teachers union allies. In 2009, three Senate Democrats, including Virginia’s Mark Warner, broke ranks and voted to keep the D.C. voucher program intact.
THERE MAY BE more resistance now, as the role of teachers unions in opposing needed reforms in public schools become more clear. Jennifer Brunner, the Democrat who served as Ohio’s secretary of state until this past January, is saddened by President Obama’s refusal to embrace reform. “The president does look like he’s playing to the far side of the interests he needs for support in his reelection bid,” she told Politico. “GOP Rep. Darrell Issa’s statement — ‘we can think of no reason why Washington students should wait for long-term public school reform when immediate relief is now possible’ — is compelling, and a cogent argument could have been made by the president and his team to at least revive and maintain vouchers for low-income students in D.C.”
President Obama’s opposition to vouchers carries with it more than a whiff of hypocrisy. He himself is the product of prestigious private high schools and colleges he attended on scholarships provided by the generosity of others. Now he wishes to deny D.C. students the same chances he had to succeed in life. “At least Jimmy Carter, who also opposed vouchers, had the courage to send his daughter to a D.C. public school,” notes Al Felzenberg, a presidential historian. “Obama, rightfully wanting the best for his children and able to pay for it, sends his to Sidwell Friends, an elite D.C. private school where tuition is $35,000 a year.”
Robert Kennedy once said that “perhaps this world is a world in which children suffer, but we can lessen the number of suffering children.” The House voted to try to do just that for struggling students in Washington, D.C. when it passed Speaker Boehner’s bill in March. Here’s hoping Senate Democrats can be shamed into passing the bill, and the Obama administration shamed into signing it.