Who Cares Where Obama’s Kids Will Go to School?

Even worse than the tedium of lame election coverage is the tedium of lame post-election coverage.  Did I really have to hear 10,000 news stories on what kind of dog Obama will get? Or how about the 10 thousand million gzillion stories about where the Obama children will go to school? Ugh.

Even worse, education bloggers have joined this lame-fest offering endless opinions and interpretations about the significance of whether the Obama children will attend public or private school.  We’ve seen postings over at FlypaperEduwonkette (the posting was actually by Aaron Pallas, a grown man and otherwise respectable scholar who chooses to call himself “skoolboy”), Jay Matthews at the Washington Post, Joanne Jacobs, ….  The list goes on but I got so bored typing it that I dozed off for a while.

So why is the topic of where the Obama kids will go to school politically irrelevant?  Supporters of choice try to use the fact that anti-voucher presidents choose private schools rather than DC public schools as evidence of hypocrisy.  I don’t buy that argument.  There is no more hypocrisy in saying that public dollars should only go to public schools even if I choose to use my own dollars at private schools than in saying that public dollars shouldn’t go to think tanks even if I donate to them with my private dollars. 

Folks hostile to vouchers worry that the Obamas choosing a private school is part of a broader problem where the public purposes of education are being undermined by private consumption.  Skoolboy goes so far as to worry that private education might be contrary to the public goal of “producing citizens prepared for life in a democracy” and entertains the “provocative” proposal from one of his students to “eliminate private schooling altogether [to] reduce both the temptation and the capacity for members of privileged groups to use their resources to maintain their advantages.”  He dismisses the proposal as not “feasible” but we could only imagine how wonderful everything would be if skoolboy and his students ran the world.  Not only could we do away with private schools but we could also all have really cool blogger rapper names, like The Notorious JPG and DJ Super-Awesome

Skoolboy seems to believe that private education undermines the public purposes of education, while public schools do not.  And I can only assume that the airtight logic behind his view is that both public education and public purpose have the word, public, in them.  Because if he bothered to familiarize himself with the empirical evidence on the relationship between private education and the production of citizens prepared for life in a democracy, he’d find that private schools better serve that purpose.  Patrick Wolf has an excellent summary of that literature.

Folks may want to score points for or against vouchers with the Obama children, but let’s just leave them alone and ignore them like we did during most of the campaign.

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15 Responses to Who Cares Where Obama’s Kids Will Go to School?

  1. Jay,

    Your metaphor between school choice and think tanks isn’t quite apt. It would work better if
    (1) Government currently provided 90% of the funding for think tanks and
    (2) You were required by law to receive publications and attend events of a think tank.
    (3) If you weren’t happy with the think tank you were assigned, you could pay to use another think tank (with your own money), but still pay taxes for funding other thinks.

    A more apt metaphor would be to suggest that people can use their own money to buy food, but food stamps should not be used for “private food”. Food stamps for the poor should be limited for use at government-run grocery stores and restaurants to buy food from government-run farms.

    Or that Medicaid and Medicare should only be used for government-run health care, not at private hospitals, for private doctors offices, et. al.

  2. You’re right Nathan. These are much better. Thanks!

  3. Here’s a better analogy: Obama could support generous funding of the public transportation system (and oppose vouchers for ‎cars) while still buying himself an expensive car. without being a hypocrite. (Thanks to Brian for suggesting this)

  4. Greg Forster says:

    1) Milton Friedman used to use the food stamps illustration all the time.

    2) I wish “skoolboy” were the first person driven by anti-voucher hysteria to suggest that private schooling should be illegal. Could one ask for a more clear demonstration of the essentially illiberal worldview that lies behind most opposition to vouchers?

    3) Since this “rapper name” thing seems to have become a meme here, I have to adopt one so I can get mentioned alongside The Notorious JPG and DJ Super-Awesome every time it comes up. I’ll work on one and get back to you.

  5. There is only one US President. His children occupy a unique position. Wherever they spend the hours between 0800 and 2:30, M-F, they will have $80,000 per year security within 5 minutes running-distance. Why not hire a tutor for that price and keep them at home (in the White House)?

  6. [...] both get in on the blather, as does Washingtonian and Teacher Magazine and bloggers gwadzilla, Jay P. Greene. Meanwhile, crowds gather at White House to watch [...]

  7. Patrick says:

    I think the elites maintain their privilege by getting educated people, like “schoolboy” to believe government can solve all their problems. Government, the very thing that protects the elites from competition, the very thing that sends impoverished children to substandard schools, that very thing which sends the bulk (80%) of wealth transfers to the rich, the very thing that declares wars and sends the lower classes off to fight.

    I find it scary that educated men and women see all the problems of this country as a systemic part of our country’s capitalist heritage – that outlawing private enterprise and voluntary transactions among adults will somehow enlighten us, makes us virtuous, or even intelligent citizens of democracy.

    Eric Hoffer, a notable American philosopher once said “Nowhere is there such measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America.”

    But I think, since the time of Plato, that the reality is this: the most educated among us loathe and fear human freedom, seeing as how human freedom does not produce the democratic man, virtuous woman, or socially just society they prefer – however they’ve defined it.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    I can hardly type this without laughing, but . . . you misspelled Aaron Pallas’s online handle. The “correct” spelling (if that’s the word) is actually, no fooling, “skoolboy.”

    Savor the sweet, sweet irony!

    And let’s leave Plato out of this. The Republic was not a proposal for what politics should really look like, but an allegory to illustrate a point about the human soul.

  9. Patrick says:

    Republic or Laws, I furiously dislike both of them. To me, Plato’s message is that the human soul needs less freedom.

    Which is why I got a C on my graduate paper on Plato. I proceeded to do an economic analysis on Laws – the trade restrictions, money system, property rights and the size of the bureaucracy.

    Needless to say, my paper failed because I “refused to take Plato on his own terms” something I felt other philosophers (greater than I) had already done. Instead I choose to attack Plato on expected real outcomes not philosophical ones (which I saw as problematic since it seemed to me Plato believed only Philosophers understood and those who understood were Philosophers…unfortunately I lack the mental capacity to attack Plato’s logic as a massive tautology, but that is what it seems like to me).

    On a side note, as a percentage of the population, Plato’s second best Republic would require a bureaucracy that is larger than the US government. I believe that would be a considerably problem since farm technology of the day was less efficient and required more manpower to produce food to sustain a human population (even one that was supposed to be static).

  10. Ed Researcher says:

    Here in DC we care where the Obamas go to school the same way we care about what kind of car celebrities drive. It’s perfectly legitimate “news” albeit entertainment news (is there a difference?).

    We also care because it provides validation for our preferred education sector. We have a favorite brand and want to see the ultimate celebrity endorsement of that brand.

    I was hoping they’d pick a charter school. Why? Because I like DC charters and would want the positive publicity to give them a boost. People on this blog hoped for private because they like private schools and want validation for that preference. Same for the public school holdouts like Jay Matthews and skuleboi.

    In the end, I Hope ™ those kids get a school where they can be safe and learn and have a semi-normal childhood.

  11. Clint Bolick says:

    Jay, I disagree with you (maybe for the first time ever!). The reason it matters is the nature of the arguments about school choice. Obama repeatedly said during the campaign that school choice doesn’t work—but if he chooses a private school, obviously it works for the Obamas. He has said he supports charters, and there are a lot of good charters—but not good enough for his kids? Opponents say school choice diverts public funds from public schools—and if he sends his kids to private schools, he’ll “drain” about $280K from the public schools over 8 years. And then there’s the symbolism—asking poor parents to make a sacrifice that he demonstrably would not make. Would the folks who promote “Buy American” be accused of hypocrisy if they bought Toyotas, notwithstanding that it may be in their interest to do so? You betcha. I for one will pound on this for the duration of his presidency.

  12. Clint Bolick says:

    I just realized that me second to last sentence sounds like Sarah Palin. I’m so easily influenced!

  13. I find myself in the unenviable position of arguing with Clint Bolick, one of the country’s best and certainly my favorite lawyer.

    As much as I believe that opponents of school choice are mistaken, I’m trying be fair to their perspective and not throw around the charge of hypocrisy too easily.

    First, nailing down what Obama has said about school choice (or almost anything, for that matter) is like trying to nail down jello. Before the Wisconsin primary Obama told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he was open to voucher programs and would be informed by the evidence. After winning the primary he quickly backtracked to the position he stated in the third debate, which was that he believed the evidence already failed to support the wisdom of government programs to pay for students to attend private schools. Now, believing that voucher programs didn’t “work” to improve average student achievement doesn’t mean that you oppose people (including yourself) ever choosing a private school. It’s not hypocrisy to oppose government payment for plastic surgery as ineffective for improving public health, while purchasing it yourself.

    I never heard Obama say that choice diverted public funds from public schools (and as numerous studies have shown — public schools tend to be left with significantly more resources per pupil when vouchers are introduced). But even if he did, one could argue that voucher programs faciliate the transfer of funds, making it more problematic than individual, unsubsidized choosing of a private school.

    Lastly, I don’t think the “Buy American” analogy works. Obama and other opponents of vouchers don’t have to be against people sending their kids to private school. They are just against people doing it with government assistance.

    I think choice supporters are drawn to the hypocrisy charge because they (in my view, rightly) disagree with choice opponents about the justice of taxing people for an education, compelling them to attend school, and then assigning them to schools that rich people can avoid. I agree with you and other voucher supporters that this arrangement is not just ineffective educationally but also horribly unjust. Fair-minded voucher opponents also see this arrangement as unjust, but want to correct the injustice by improving the public schools to which students are assigned. I (and other voucher supporters) don’t see that as a solution, both because it is impractical and because it doesn’t fully address the individual wishes of families.

    But I think we overplay our hand when we accuse them of hypocrisy. They have a different perspective on the way to correct the injustice of the status quo and we need to convince them to change that perspective.

  14. Greg Forster says:

    I fully believe that Barack Obama opposes vouchers because he sincerely believes that there are some things (like private schooling) that are beneficial enough to be worth purchasing if you can afford them, but that government should nonetheless refrain from subsidizing so that poor families can enjoy them as well as rich ones.

    Therefore, I eagerly await the application of this principle – which I totally believe he holds – to his positions on welfare, health care, housing, labor policy, the environment, economic bailouts, entitlements, farm subsidies, taxes . . .

  15. I’m convinced that I was wrong about this. There is something awful about sending your kids to an effective school while changing public policy to do deny others the opportunity to do the same. See http://jaypgreene.com/2009/04/11/usdoe-yanks-opportunity-from-dc-children/#comment-4377

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