In order to head off a public-relations catastrophe, Barack Obama has spun a partial about-face in his opposition to the school-choice voucher program for low-income students in Washington, DC. The president’s move, however, falls far short of truly saving the program and helping the legions of disadvantaged children in the nation’s capital.
Here’s a short chronology of Obama’s zigs and zags. After first seeming open to vouchers if they could be proven to help kids, then-candidate Obama reversed course and opposed vouchers because he decided that they hadn’t improved student outcomes. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released a study of the Washington, DC voucher program that found that students using the voucher to go to a private school achieved at a significantly higher level in reading than students attending regular Washington, DC public schools. Despite this finding, the Obama administration decided to rescind the voucher scholarships for 200 students who won the 2009 lottery for those scholarships. After a large protest demonstration by the mostly African-American parents and students benefiting from the DC vouchers, the president decided to rescind his rescission and guarantee voucher scholarships to all students currently receiving the scholarships until they graduate from high school. The president’s latter actions are insincere at best, and a blatant political ploy at worst.
Observers across the political spectrum don’t believe that the president had a road-to-Damascus moment on vouchers. The Economist magazine said: “The stay of execution [for the DC voucher program] had a lot to do with political expediency. Ending the scheme immediately would not only have disrupted the education of 1,700 children; it would also have exposed both [education secretary Arne] Duncan and his boss to charges of hypocrisy. Mr. Duncan sends his children to school in Virginia, and Mr. Obama pays for his two daughters to go to Sidwell Friends [private school].” Reading the administration’s tea leaves, the Washington Post speculated that “there was also some thought given to the political optics of booting hundreds of poor, black students from private schools back into troubled public schools.” Perhaps the best line came from Rick Hess, education expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Like a guilty teenager who wrecks the family car and then generously offers to pay for a tank of gas,” observed Hess, “the administration’s proposal is insulting in its earnestness.” Hess noted that Obama and his officials stood by silently as congressional Democrats attacked the voucher program and as the National Education Association threatened any Democrat who sided with the program. Hess rightly worries that “the administration will score some quick points for this too-clever-by-half ‘pragmatism’ while persuading pundits to look past the double talk on respecting data, seeking out solutions that work, and putting interests of kids before those of adults.”
For all his fancy PR footwork, Obama’s bone to the current voucher-receiving students in DC fails to answer the larger question facing students across the nation. If vouchers are improving the performance of students and parents and their children are happy with their new private schools, then why not extend the program to those who aren’t currently receiving vouchers?
In a hearing on the DC voucher program which he chaired, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) argued that if the program is working it should be continued so more children, not just the ones already receiving the scholarships, can benefit. “We happen to have the facts on our side,” Lieberman said, “We also have justice on our side.”
President Obama should heed the letter signed by 14 senators, including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, expressing “disappointment” in the president’s decision to bar new students from taking advantage of the DC vouchers. The senators urge the president to “reverse your decision and allow funding to be used to allow the maximum number of low-income students trapped in underperforming schools to benefit from the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.”
Barack Obama’s cover-my-backside half-measure should garner him no accolades. It’s simply not enough, Mr. President.
Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.