Obama and school choice

Well, it looks like Barack and Michelle do believe in school choice. They said last week that their daughters, Malia and Sasha, would attend Sidwell Friends School, a private school with a price tag of about $30,000 a year per student. No thoughtful person can criticize that decision. Why? Not many thoughtful people — given a choice — would send their children to the public schools in D.C. And that’s the rub. Most don’t have that choice.

And President-elect Obama is lukewarm, at best, on the issue of providing federally funded school vouchers. And in sending his children to private schools, Obama is right in step with 37 percent of Representatives in the 110th Congress and 45 percent of Senators, according to The Heritage Foundation.

Here’s from an article in The Washington Post:

The public spotlight on the Obamas’ school choice rekindled debate over whether a populist president should send his children to elite schools. The District’s public schools are headed by an activist chancellor in Michelle Rhee, who is battling the teachers’ union and long-entrenched problems to raise standards; she sends her children to public school. She is backed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, who sends his children to private school. Both made it clear, by sending out a press release, that they had talked with the Obamas about their decision.

And this is a tough and polarizing issue — and like most involving education and our schools, there are no easy solutions. Yet it is important — to young people in school today and to the future of our economy and our democracy.

Here’s from a column written by Linda Chavez. She heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit policy research organization in Virginia and is the author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.”

Democratic politicians like to see themselves as champions of public education; but when it comes to picking schools for their own children to attend, their support disappears. President-elect Obama is no different than hundreds of other Democratic elected officials across the nation, from members of Congress to big-city mayors and city council members. The president-elect’s daughters have been in private schools in Chicago — and all indications are that they will enroll in one of Washington’s elite private schools when the family makes its big move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

That’s too bad because it insulates the Obamas from what other families must deal with: a failing public school system that resists genuine reform. And in Washington’s case, it deprives a courageous new school chancellor of what would be her most powerful constituents, the First Family.

And the problem here is that Obama and many Democrats don’t favor school vouchers — which give parents and students choice but at the same time, the argument goes — diminishes the resources available to already struggling public schools. Here’s from an editorial in The Washington Post.

MICHELLE OBAMA’S visits to two private schools and her inquiries about Washington’s public schools have sparked the inevitable public vs. private debate. We won’t be weighing in because we would never presume to tell any parents where to send their children to school. Yet, as President-elect Barack Obama and his wife decide what’s right for Malia and Sasha, Mr. Obama might want to think about the families that he would deny this precious freedom of choice.

During the just-concluded campaign, Mr. Obama spoke dismissively of the federally funded voucher program that gives poor D.C. families access to the kind of educational opportunities his family is fortunate to have. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gives low-income families up to $7,500 per child for their children to escape failed public schools and attend private schools. Some 1,900 children receive vouchers, and many more are clamoring to join the program. Democrats, and their allies in public school teachers unions, oppose the vouchers and, with the party soon to control Congress and the White House, supporters of the program are right to worry.

Let’s hope the experience of moving his girls and finding the place where they will flourish resonates with Mr. Obama so that he reexamines his stance on the District’s voucher program. How is it right to take away what little choice there is for needy D.C. children? The scholarship program wasn’t intended to replace Washington’s public schools, and it doesn’t lessen the urgency of improving them. But it does give some poor parents an opportunity taken for granted by better-off families, who can pick their residency based on school district even if they can’t afford the most elite private schools.

I really believe that the upcoming policy debate and decisions involving education are every bit as important as the decisions involving the Detroit automakers and the failed financial institutions on Wall Street. They all require leadership — and communications based on actions and decisions that are in the best interests of everyone. Gotta save the schools. Gotta save the automakers. Gotta save Wall Street. Let’s hope Obama can get it done.

And talking about education, I wrote Friday about Myron Rolle, the star Florida State safety. Well, Rolle received a Rhodes scholarship in Alabama — and then made his way back to Maryland to help the team win an important game Saturday night. Call it a victory for student-athletes.

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3 responses to “Obama and school choice

  1. Rob-

    I assume the Obamas put their daughters’ best interests first in making their decision, and that is proper. They don’t deserve criticism for that.

    I speculate that his attitude toward school vouchers, however, stems more from the millions he received in campaign contributions from teachers’ unions than any principle he holds toward public education.

    He may have said during the campaign that special interests will not hold sway in Washington, but I certainly wasn’t buying it.

    Follow the (campaign contribution) money. That’s the “change” Obama and the other politicians GENUINELY believe in.

  2. Tim,

    I agree. And I hope I said this. I don’t blame the Obamas for sending their children to a private school instead of the D.C. public schools. I would do the same thing (although not sure I have the $60 k.) And I would say the same about most inner-city public schools in this country, including Akron where my wife has taught for 30 years. The whole issue is tough because it touches on a whole range of social as well as educational issues.

    And I think the teachers’ unions are going to have to swallow hard and accept some changes regarding tenure and accountability. One of the big problems here — as usual — is a lack of trust between teachers and administrators. Interesting how often we return to this issue: trust.

  3. There are several Edison Schools in the D.C. area!

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