Saturday, February 12, 2011

Challenging President Obama on Education

This column ran in the Observer on Tuesday, February 8th.  Let me know what you think of my argument!

The State of the Union address on Jan. 25 was a continuance of the President's anti-ideological rhetoric since the midterms and the tragic shooting in Tucson; a refreshing escape from the entrenched arguments of the last two years. The speech signaled that the President is fiercely open minded heading into the new legislative session, and excited to work with whomever has an innovative idea supported by documented evidence. Empowering children to compete in the next generation economy through equal opportunity in education was a rallying cry and reoccurring theme in the speech. Appropriately, seated in the audience of the speech thanks to Speaker John Boehner was a group of outstanding students that embody the hope of the United States to overcome educational shortfalls from four different inner-city Catholic schools in D.C. Many of the students present were beneficiaries of a successful program called D.C. Opportunity Scholarships that was terminated for all future underprivileged D.C. students by Congressional Democrats and President Obama in 2009.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program fits seamlessly into President Obama's post-partisan call for education reform, but to date it has been left off the table by the President. The program was established in 2003 under the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act and is "the first federally funded private school voucher program in the United States, providing scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income residents (avg. family income of $17,300) of the District of Columbia to send their children to local participating private schools." In the year 2007, 1,930 students were receiving a scholarship to attend a school of their family's choice.

Despite the fact that it is extremely rare for educational intervention to show indisputable achievement gains after a few years, D.C. Opportunity Scholarships have proven their value according to the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Government. Of the students offered a scholarship those who accepted had an 82 percent graduation rate while those that declined had a 70 percent graduation rate. The D.C. public school system graduates only 48.8 percent of its students. Sub groups of scholarship recipients, including females and high achievement students, showed statistically significant gains in reading scores, while all students showed small improvements in reading and math using the most rigorous methodology for testing achievement. In addition to remarkable improvements in graduation rates and advancements in student achievement, four consecutive reports from Georgetown University and the University of Arkansas showed parents are "very satisfied and more involved in their children's education," and "children have an improved attitude toward learning, increased self-esteem and enthusiasm towards school."

Strictly in terms of political calculus, supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships would garner significant positive attention at little cost for the President. Boehner has made the scholarship program a top priority in his new role as speaker by unconventionally sponsoring legislation to reinstate the program himself. He hosted a press conference the day after the State of the Union along with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman who is introducing the bill in the Senate, calling on the President to live up to his words from the night before on education. Obama and Boehner shaking hands on a deal to empower poor children and their families in D.C. to choose their schools is exactly the type of story the White House should be pursuing.

The cost to Obama would come from the teachers' unions and the left-wing Democrats who do not want to go on the record opposing them. However, the political tides are working in Obama's favor if he reverses his position on the Opportunity Scholarships. With the help of the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman" and well published success of alternative models to the traditional public school, the activist base of the Democratic Party is quickly turning on teachers' unions that put their job security above the interests of children. Additionally, multiple former Democratic mayors of the city and a majority of the D.C. City Council endorsed the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2009.

Obama needs to establish himself as an unequivocal supporter of educational opportunity for children. A good public education should be the first step towards the American dream. For many Americans it is, but for minorities and the poor, particularly in D.C., the numbers overwhelmingly display a system that is thoroughly failing. Wealthy D.C. area families have had a school choice plan for decades because they have the ability to choose where they live according to the quality of the schools, or to pay for private school tuition.

School choice advocates do not expect the President to fully endorse vouchers as a solution to the crisis in U.S. education at this point in time. However, they demand the President stop turning his back to the success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program while he speaks to the American people about his bipartisan credentials and the need for a new generation of innovative policies. Much like the Administration's flagship Race to the Top Initiative, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is a targeted investment, albeit more than $4 billion less at a total of $13.1 million, designed to help students in the short-term while building a longer term body of evidence for an education reform strategy. The evidence collected from the Opportunity Scholarship Program will help legislators evaluate the effectiveness of vouchers. Reinstating the D.C. voucher program on the condition that it continues to meet realistic academic achievement and parental satisfaction goals is a bipartisan idea that prioritizes students and discovering what works in education.


ShamRockNRoll said...

I am certainly open minded towards vouchers as part of the solution. Though I have to take issue with the way you adopted the right-wing's framing of teacher's unions.

Teacher unions certainly need to be open minded in this fight as well, though the way you casually write them off as being more concerned about their job security is unfair in my opinion. As a lifelong product of public schools, and the son of a public school teacher, these are just a few of the issues teachers constantly have to deal with: inadequate pay, increasing class sizes and work loads, budget cuts that force them to buy materials out of pocket, in addition to a serious lack of respect from parents and the public at large.

I support the D.C. program for a few reasons. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is additional funding (not taken out of the public school budget) and there are also a number of quality private schools in the D.C. area for these children to attend. With these circumstances, this is a great program. What teacher's unions, and opponents of broad voucher-based policies are concerned with is the siphoning of public funds away from schools in need to private schools that might not be any better (and are often times worse) than their public counter parts. There are a lot of wonderful charter schools out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones. There are also a lot of private schools run by fundamentalist Christians that aren't going to give our children the education they need in the sciences to compete with the rest of the global economy.

Reasonable minds can come together and agree that public education needs a major overhaul in this country. And vouchers should be part of that discussion. I just wanted to raise a few points, and take issue with some of the framing about unions. Good post though, Chris. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I love your comments. Obviously we share the same goals, and I appreciate that you are open minded about how to achieve them. The DC program is additional funding, that does not impact the DC public school budget. A very important factor in me supporting it so aggressively.

I understand your comments on teacher unions, we shall save that discussion for a night over a couple beers. I believe deeply in the right to organize, but recognize the flaw in the current structure of teachers' unions. In my opinion, their mission is to protect all teachers regardless of capacity to teach. Unions will be left behind if they stand for protecting inefficient workers. I think they give a bad name to unions as a whole, and believe reform is badly needed within their ranks. Teachers need to be represented and given what they deserve, but the best teachers should drive the policy not the worst. Union opposition to charters, vouchers, incentive pay etc. is hard to stomach.

Anonymous said...

For anyone that is interested in reading a full paper about the topic of progressives and vouchers I was published in last year's Beyond Politics on the issue.

It is a topic I love to discuss!! Keep the comments coming.