VIRGINIA—President Obama frequently discusses his
commitment to quality education for all American children but the
administration’s action with regard to the successful voucher program in Washington,
D.C., holds this commitment open to question.
March, an effort to preserve the D.C. school voucher program—which pays parents
to send their children to private schools—died when the U.S. Senate rejected a
Republican amendment to the $410 billion spending bill. As a result, the
roughly 1,700 low-income D.C. youth who receive up to $7,500 a year for tuition
at a private school will have to enroll in a public or charter school in 2010.
D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, a liberal Democrat and
strong supporter of President Obama, challenged his
own party. He called for continued federal funding for the program that aids
underprivileged children—90 percent of whom are members of minority groups—to
attend private schools.
Fenty expressed his support for the so-called
"three-sector approach" to education funding: equal federal money for
public schools, charter schools, and vouchers. He declared: "Political
leaders can debate the merits of vouchers, but we should not disrupt the
education of children who are presently enrolled in private schools through the
D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program."
John Ensign (R-NV) notes that Congress has been funding $14 million a year in
vouchers to offer students a way out of a failing education system.
Participants, he declares, are "thriving" and critics are simply
buckling in to the pressure of teachers unions. "This is just a little
experiment, a little competition, that people want to
come and destroy."
Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, while
pointing out that she does not believe vouchers are the long-term answer to
public education reform, nevertheless said: "However, we do believe in
choice, and we are committed to the three-sector approach comprised of
traditional public schools, public charter schools, and vouchers. School choice
is only effective when families have viable options that enable them to make
decisions based on the best interest of their child."
George W. Bush started the program five years ago, and it is the only federally
funded voucher system in the country. (Other voucher programs in cities such as
Milwaukee and Cleveland are funded by the cities.) The D.C. program has been a
target for Democrats, who draw support from the teachers unions who strongly
his part, President Obama has largely remained silent
on this issue. White House spokesman Tommy Victor says that, "The
president has repeatedly said that school vouchers are not a long-term solution
to our educational challenges, but in this he instance believes that we should
try to find a way to keep from disrupting the students currently in this
program. He looks forward to working with Congress to find a solution."
Nothing more was heard as the program was permitted to die.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that poor children getting vouchers in
Washington, D.C., should be allowed to stay in the schools of their choice,
even as congressional Democrats worked to end the program. He said: "I
don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and
safe and satisfied and learning. I think these kids need to stay in their
school." Unless the White House intervenes, however, the voucher program
will come to an end.
The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn
notes that this issue "points to perhaps the most odious double standards
in American life today: the way some of our loudest champions of public
education vote to keep other people’s children—mostly inner-city blacks and
Latinos—trapped in schools where they’d never let their own kids set
Washington recipients of vouchers, Sarah and James Parker, attend Sidwell Friends School together with the children of
President Obama. Virginia Walden-Ford, executive
director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, says: "I’d like to see a
reporter stand up at one of those nationally televised press conferences and
ask President Obama what he thinks about what his own
party is doing to keep two innocent kids from attending the same school where
he sends his?"
Sidwell headmaster Bruce Stewart says that the
voucher program gives parents more educational options for their children and
is not only good for the students but for the community as well.
The Washington Post, a strong supporter of the Obama
administration, had harsh words for Democrats who seek to end the voucher
program: "Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and other
congressional Democrats should spare us their phony concern about the children
participating in the District’s voucher program. If they cared for the future
of these students, they wouldn’t be so quick as to try to kill the program that
affords low-income, minority children a chance at a better education…. The
debate… on Capitol Hill isn’t about facts. It’s about politics and the
stranglehold the teachers unions have on the Democratic Party."
liberal columnist Nat Hentoff headlined a recent
article "Obama’s Shameful Silence." He
laments that, "President Obama’s huge stimulus
bill includes about $100 billion for education. And he insists his criteria for
supporting reform is not ‘whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but
whether it works.’… However, when congressional Democrats… doomed the
Opportunity Scholarship Program for poor children in the District, the
education president didn’t say a word."
real reason for opposition to the Washington, D.C., voucher program is not its
merits or demerits, argues Andrew Coulson, director
of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute: "If allowed
to continue, these Opportunity scholarships will keep reminding voters that
independent and parochial schools are more efficient and responsive to parents
than public schooling. That might accelerate the spread of private school
choice programs around the country. But while two-thirds of public school
employees are union members, only 7 percent of the private sector work force
belongs to a union. Many in Congress have apparently done this math and fear
the effect of real private school choice on their political futures… If they
continue with their current tactics, our union-inspired Congress will soon find
itself on the wrong side of history as the demand for choice in education
of the Washington voucher program by the Manhattan Institute, the U.S.
Department of Education, and Georgetown University have found high levels of
parent satisfaction with the program and a greater degree of integration for
scholarship recipients than for public school students. They also do better
Cato Institute’s David Boaz notes that, "Education used to be a poor
child’s ticket out of the slums; now it is part of the system that traps people
in the underclass… In the government sector, failures are not punished, they
are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the
problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff…
What kind of incentive is this?"
Obama cannot call himself the "education
president" while he presides over the elimination of Washington, D.C.’s,
successful voucher program. The choice is up to him.
Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright (c) 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld
and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, http://www.fgfbooks.com. All rights reserved.
Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.
C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest
of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security).
He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the
U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The
Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to such publications as Human
Events, The St. Croix Review, and The
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.