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.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hope in Chaos

One of my friends showed me this amazing picture of Christian protesters linking together to protect Muslim protesters at their prayers during violent protests on Friday. Little glimpses of unity and beauty like this completely restore my faith in humanity and help me to believe in the concept of peace. This photo is proof that religious violence is not insurmountable. Divisive ideologies can be put aside in the face of respect and cooperation around a common good. There's better things to fight about than the bible, as these protesters have clearly discovered.

I love the smile on the face of the protester on the right. It's as if he realizes he is part of something historical, something that transcends factionalism and goes beyond even the fight in Egypt. The following photo offers a glimpse into what Muslim protesters have endured while praying over the course of the last several weeks. These two photos were not taken at the same time, but the sentiments behind both are truly inspiring.

Credit where credit is due: I got these images from the following sites:
Thanks to Lillie Catlin for bringing my attention to these images.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Future Jobs in Clean Energy

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing new regulations on air pollution, much to the chagrin of several Right Wingers who claim that global warming is a hoax, or that dirty, non-renewable energy and strict regulation of the EPA is a priority (interestingly, strict regulation of Wall Street is not). I've written about the proposed regulations before, which basically limit the number of pollutants that power utilities can release into the air.

Recently, a report was commissioned by Ceres to investigate how many jobs could be created by the new EPA regulations. The results were astounding. The report estimates that over the next five years, the regulations would create 1.5 million jobs in fields as varied as engineering, construction, consulting and pipe-fitting. The report was conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Political Economy and Research Institute, which found that, since 1970, every dollar invested to comply with the Clean Air Act has brought about between 4 and 8 dollars in economic benefit.

Not all the new jobs would be permanent, the report concludes, but new plants complying with the higher standards will create at least a few thousand permanent jobs, and new job opportunities in exports and clean energy technology were not included in the report. Senator Tom Carper points out that the new rules will save thousands of lives and billions in healthcare costs, "but will also create almost 300,000 jobs every year." Basically, the new pollutant regulations are a really good thing.

The "Party of No" begs to differ. In fact, GOP lawmakers are so against the EPA regulations that they are targeting the EPA (as well as high speed rail and other renewable energy programs) in proposed budget cuts. I understand that coal is an important part of America's history and economy, and I certainly don't want coal and other industrial plants to go out of business because of the regulations, but the GOP needs to come to terms with the reality of Global Warming and accept that the present solutions aren't all that bad. It seems almost like petty showmanship to target the EPA. I, for one, am crossing my fingers that rational thinkers on both sides of party lines band together to defend all the environmental issues threatened by budget cuts.

I'll leave you with this disturbing video of Rep. Fred Upton, new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in which he panders skillfully and questions the causes of Global Warming. Here's to hoping his opinions are a distinct minority.