In early March, President Obama addressed the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on his vision for public education. The president promised that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would move beyond party politics to use “only one test” when deciding how to use taxpayer money. That test would be “not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”
President Obama outlined five “pillars” that he and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan consider vital for improving public education: early childhood education, better standards and assessments, better teachers, more charter schools, and improved federal college assistance. Several of these pillars do buck the liberal status quo.
The president wants to increase the number of charter schools, for example, a step which frustrates opponents of school choice and those in the education establishment who fear competition. He also called for merit pay for teachers, and for stronger measures to move underperforming teachers from the classroom. This important reform has been historically unpopular with the teachers’ unions that have so strongly influenced the liberal education agenda.
These ideas represent an important step toward bipartisan solutions that put children’s futures above party politics. President Obama and Secretary Duncan, unfortunately, fall short in their failure to endorse vouchers for parental choice as a sixth pillar of reform.
In fact, just days before Obama delivered his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the United States Senate voted essentially to end the Washington DC voucher program that currently provides 1700 kids with “Opportunity Scholarships” to attend the school of their choice. Under the DC School Choice Incentive Act of 2003, Congress allocated up to $7500 per student to low-income children in the Washington DC area.
Approximately 1700 students accepted the vouchers and chose to attend local private schools. Sarah and James Parker, for example, use the vouchers to attend Sidwell Friends School, the same prestigious private school that Obama’s daughters attend. The Senate’s recent vote will stop funding of the program by the end of the 2010 school year, and force the Parkers and many others back to their failing public schools.
Opponents of the program claim that vouchers might allow parents to send their children to schools that foster hate or un-American principals using federal money. They also point to a Department of Education study of the first two years of the program that shows no significant difference in test scores between students in voucher schools and otherwise.
On the other hand, multiple studies of state voucher programs in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, and New York show improvement in test scores. The improvement often becomes noticeable after three to four years of participation, a fact overlooked by those who use the two-year Department of Education study. Vouchers work for academic improvement, greater parental satisfaction with their children’s schools, and greater feelings of safety.
Voucher programs have also been successfully implemented internationally. As Lance Izumi points out in a recent New York Times video op-ed, Sweden currently has a voucher program that enjoys widespread support among parents, students, and educators. Politicians from the left, center, and right came together to support the program when they recognized that the monopoly system of public education deprived children of the high-quality instruction they deserved.
If President Obama and Secretary Duncan really want to put children first, they should look to Sweden and include vouchers as part of their agenda. Teachers’ unions and others vested in the education status quo would oppose the idea. But if the only metric for a reform is whether or not it “works,” the new administration should look to Sweden for an idea that would empower parents and children to demand the education American children deserve no less than Swedish ones.