April 18, 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld ALEXANDRIA, 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.
In 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 $4l0 billion spending bill. As a result, the roughly l,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 20l0.
Washington, 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.
Mayor 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."
Senator John Ensign (R-NV) notes that Congress has been funding $l4 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."
D.C. 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."
President 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 oppose it.
For 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.
Similarly, 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 foot."
Two 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.
Editorially, 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."
Respected liberal columnist Nat Hentoff headlined a recent article "Obama's Shameful Silence." He laments that, "President Obama's huge stimulus bill includes about $l00 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."
The 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 becomes louder."
Studies 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 academically.
The 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?"
President 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.
### The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright (c) 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, http://www.fgfbooks.com. All rights reserved.
Allan 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.
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