Federal Money Should Empower Parents, Not Failing Public Schools

Last week, in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Obama laid out plans for improving America’s dropout rate. Some of the ideas are worthy of praise, but a pattern is becoming increasingly predictable. The president promised federal money in exchange for reform.

Specifically, Obama promised $900 million to high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. He promised to “focus on helping states and school districts turn around their 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the next five years.” Because half of America’s dropouts come from only 12 percent of America’s schools, Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized the importance of investing in these failing schools to improve graduation rates. Obama also advanced some controversial strategies.

He praised a superintendent in Rhode Island, for example, who fired the teachers and administrators in an underperforming school where teachers refused to devote additional hours to student improvement. He also announced support for such actions as, “transforming schools from top to bottom by bringing in a new principal, and training teachers to use more effective techniques in the classroom…closing a school for a time and reopening it under new management, or even shutting it down entirely and sending its students to a better school.”

Such ideas, unpopular with teachers’ unions, should be praised. President Obama and Secretary Duncan have consistently shown a willingness to support some policies that teachers’ unions dislike, even though unions make up an important part of the Democratic base. But Obama and Duncan have failed to embrace the reforms that will empower parents and students actually to receive the education they deserve—vouchers that allow parents to choose the best school for their student.

The president acknowledged that federal money alone cannot solve America’s education problems. True improvement, he said, will, “take parents getting involved in their children’s education, consistently – going to parent-teacher conferences, helping their children with their homework.” But he did not promise parents the opportunity to send their children to good schools.

Many politicians, including Obama himself, realize that government-run schools often fail the students they claim to serve. Barack and Michele Obama send their two daughters to a private school. Yet the president and secretary Duncan refuse to give other children that same chance. They prefer to channel federal money to schools that are currently failing.

The $900 million promised by the Obama administration might improve a few failing schools, over many years. No amount of federal money, no strategies for improving failing schools, and no impressive oratory will get children out of such schools tomorrow. Obama quoted Arne Duncan’s phrase that each child only gets one chance at an education. Obama and Duncan should put federal money where their mouths are and really give each student the chance to make the most of their “one chance.”

Obama closed his speech by hoping that “we all accept our role to play in making sure that we have the best-educated citizenry in the world.” Obama should play his own role by empowering parents to fulfill theirs by choosing the best schools for their children. Until that happens, students will continue to fall short of their potential, and many will continue to drop out, as they wait for politicians to give them the chance they deserve.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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