On September 8, the nation tuned in as President Barack Obama delivered an address on education to a group of students in Arlington, Virginia. The speech proved instructive, in a number of ways.
Critics and pundits worried that President Obama would use his speech to promote a political agenda and attempt to influence children to support his policies. Some parents, for example, bristled at his call for students to write him a letter about how they could support his presidency. In response, the White House changed the request.
The president asked students to set personal goals for themselves, to take responsibility for their own futures, and to work hard in pursuit of their dreams. Delivered in the president’s eloquent style, the motivational words still ring hollow. Across the country students are stuck in failing and dangerous schools, but President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan oppose some of their best options to exit such schools.
In his speech, Obama recognized that some students might “live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.” This acknowledgment of the difficult circumstances of many of America’s students is important. Many students are stuck in unsafe schools and have peer groups that encourage them to use drugs, join gangs, or any number of other dangerous activities. President Obama, who promised change, has the opportunity to provide it.
He and Secretary Duncan can encourage states to adopt school choice and vouchers. More specifically, they could choose to continue providing vouchers to students in failing schools in Washington DC. Studies have demonstrated that students in voucher schools under the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program feel safer than they did in their old public schools. Yet so far Obama has failed to fund a continuation of the successful program, popular with low-income African-American parents and their children, effectively killing the program by attrition.
School choice would allow students in circumstances like those Obama describes in his speech to change schools. Rather than having to surmount tremendous obstacles, and sometimes even risk personal safety by fighting to succeed in failing and dangerous schools, voucher programs would allow parents and students simply to find safer and better places to learn.
While it is true that students should not let obstacles prevent them from working toward their goals or use them as excuses for failure, it is also true that students should not have to surmount obstacles that are not necessary. It might take years to improve failing schools—and some might never improve. Voucher programs would allow students to escape to better schools overnight.
“Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up,” President Obama told students in his speech. “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.” If he chose to support voucher programs, such words might hold real meaning for America’s children and their parents.
Failing to support a full measure of school choice, however, makes such words fall short. If President Obama and Secretary Duncan want students to write their own destiny, they should give them the tools to do so. A good place to start would be in their own back yard, by renewing the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.