Barack Obama’s historic election victory and eloquence will surely inspire American parents and students alike, but they are likely in for disappointment as well, especially those with limited means. On the issue of school choice, change has not come to America. A gap remains between what the president-elect says and what he does.
Obama’s family could have sent him to regular government schools in Hawaii, but instead chose to enroll him at the elite Punahou School. Out of many college possibilities, he chose Columbia University. Out of many law schools, he selected Harvard. With a law degree from Harvard, he could have taught or practiced just about anywhere. He chose to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, another elite school, which was glad to have him.
As a family man, Barack Obama showed he learned the lesson of choice. He and Michelle could have sent their daughters Sasha and Malia to the regular government schools in the Chicago area. Instead, they chose to send them to the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where annual tuition ranges from $15,000 to more than $20,445 for high school.
Although that was well within the Obamas’ pay grade, private school – even those that charge much less – is not affordable for many other parents. But Barack Obama opposes their right to choose the school they believe best suits their children.
Wisconsin has a voucher plan that lets parents of limited income do just that. Polly Williams, an African-American state legislator known as the “Rosa Parks of school choice,” was its prime mover. The voucher plan has been upheld by the courts, but the president-elect opposes it. However, he did tell the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in February that he had something of an open mind, and that if vouchers were shown to be successful, he would favor “what works for kids.”
The Wisconsin choice plan is indeed successful, and so are similar plans around the country, but Obama’s mind has since closed up on choice.
In June he told Jake Tapper of ABC News that choice might benefit some kids at the top, but it leaves others at the bottom. There weren’t enough openings for every child to go to a parochial or private school. Choice would also be “a huge drain of resources out of the public schools,” Obama said, adding, “I think it would be overall bad for most kids.”
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Barack Obama has it backward. Those at the top don’t need voucher programs. Those at the bottom do, and they have their eyes on the prize. The president-elect opposes their right to choose, and does so in the dog-eared rhetoric of teacher union bosses, which has proved to be bogus. Choice does not drain resources from public schools but instead improves their performance.
There is no educational, social, or legal argument against school choice. There are only political arguments, like those deployed by a president-elect who claims to represent change, but actually backs a government monopoly status quo that traps kids in failing, dangerous schools.
Barack Obama is not the first to showcase that contradiction. During their stay in Washington, the Clintons sent daughter Chelsea to the private Sidwell Friends School, which prompted Polly Williams to say, “Bill and Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be the only people who live in public housing who can send their kid to private school.” The Obamas also bypassed the D.C. public system and will be sending Sasha and Malia to Sidwell Friends as well.
So it will be interesting to see how the new president deals with the D.C. voucher plan. Like choice programs everywhere, it has proven popular with low-income families, predominately African-American, but has had to fight for its very existence.
An advocate in the White House would help. If he truly wants change, Barack Obama should support full parental choice in education for all Americans as a matter of basic civil rights.
K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute.