Barack Obama’s stubborn refusal to re-think his opposition to the school-choice voucher program in Washington, DC is further evidence, as if we need any more, that the centrist-talking candidate of 2008 was a smokescreen for the ideologically liberal now president who’s unafraid to show his true colors.
Throughout the campaign and into his presidency, Barack Obama claimed that his measurement for education policy is not whether such policy is conservative or liberal, but whether it works. While he criticized John McCain’s “tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice,” in the October 15, 2008 presidential debate Obama argued against vouchers in a way that would have allowed an intellectually honest person to re-consider his opposition.
“I disagree with [John McCain on vouchers],” said Obama, “because the data doesn’t show that it solves the problem.” By “data,” he presumably meant the empirical evidence on whether vouchers raised student achievement. By basing his distaste for vouchers on data, Mr. Obama painted himself into a corner. If the data ended up showing that vouchers improved student performance, one would assume that Obama would then withdraw his opposition if he truly believed in his “what works” yardstick. Sadly, however, ideology and the need to keep his teacher-union friends happy turn out to be more important than data.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education quietly released a study that examined the performance of students in the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by Congress in 2005. The program provides a limited number of opportunity scholarships, or vouchers, in the amount of $7,500 for eligible low-income students in the nation’s capital to pay for tuition at private schools.
These scholarships/vouchers, given out through a lottery system, allow at least some children to escape the hideously poor performing, and often dangerous, Washington public schools, where neither President Obama nor Secretary of Education Arne Duncan send their own children. The study employed a rigorous methodology comparing voucher-receiving students with students who applied for the voucher but didn’t receive one. The results showed clearly that the vouchers were helping students.
Voucher-receiving students were more than three months ahead of their non-voucher-receiving peers in reading. Even more impressive, the students who first received the vouchers after the program was enacted were up to two years ahead in reading. Not surprisingly, parents of voucher-receiving students were more satisfied with the quality of their children’s education than parents forced to send their children to the public schools. These positive results come at a bargain price compared to the cost of the DC public schools.
Education policy analyst Andrew Coulson of the Washington-based Cato Institute has calculated that the DC public schools spend $26,655 per student. In comparison, the average tuition at a voucher-receiving private school is $6,620, lower than the maximum voucher amount of $7,500 and one fourth of the cost of DC’s per-pupil spending. Yet, despite the cost effectiveness of the voucher program and the solid data showing that it helps kids, Barack Obama prefers to ignore his “what works” benchmark.
Although the DC voucher program is set to expire in June 2010, the Obama administration rescinded the scholarships for the 200 students who had won the lottery to receive vouchers for school year starting in fall 2009. National Public Radio news analyst Juan Williams, an Obama supporter in general, called this an “outrage” and charged that Obama “is playing rank politics with the education of poor children.”
Barack Obama, who attended private school and sends his daughters to private schools, has said, “The question is whether or not ordinary parents, who can’t work the system, are able to get their kids into a decent school, and that’s what I need to fight for and will fight for as president.” It turns out, however, that Obama really didn’t mean it.
The parents and the kids don’t matter. Data and evidence don’t matter. What works doesn’t matter. What matters to this president is slavish adherence to an ideology that puts government and special interests ahead of everything else. In his first 100 days in office, Obama has not just created an education credibility gap, he’s dug a chasm.
Lance T. Izumi is the Koret Senior Fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.