Does President Obama care more about black criminals than black schoolchildren?

May 7, 2009

Jason Riley asks the question in the Wall Street Journal

His answer: 

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems more interested in the sentencing gap than the learning gap. The president pays lip-service to the need to open pathways to educational achievement, but he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been actively working to shut down Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides low-income children with $7,500 per year to use toward tuition at a private school. Mr. Obama can’t claim that the program isn’t working. The latest evaluation by his own Education Department showed scholarship recipients — 99% of whom are black or Hispanic — outperforming their public-school peers in reading. That finding takes on even more significance when you consider that black 12th-graders in this country average lower reading scores than white 8th-graders.

Yesterday, the administration announced that it will support allowing current students to remain in the program but will oppose letting any new kids join them. The illogic is exquisite. If the president believes that school vouchers are effective enough to grandfather existing participants, the scholarship program deserves to be expanded, not shuttered.”

The Wall Street Journal Strikes Again

May 5, 2009

The Wall Street Journal has another strong editorial today condemning Barack Obama and Arne Duncan’s hypocrisy in seeking to end the D.C. voucher program.  Here’s a highlight:

“See if you can follow this political syllogism. President Obama and his Education Secretary have repeatedly promised to support “what works,” regardless of ideology. The teachers unions adamantly oppose school vouchers, whether or not they work. Ergo, Messrs. Obama and Duncan decide to end a D.C. school voucher program that works and force poor kids back into schools where Messrs. Obama and Duncan would never send their own children. What a disgrace.”

There’s a rally of voucher families planned for this week and there will be congressional hearings on reauthorizing the program next week.  Stay tuned.

Democratic Control of Schools

April 26, 2009

Yesterday the New York Times profiled a school district in which the democratically elected school board is dominated by a group that places its financial interests ahead of the educational interests of children in the district.  And that group easily wins school board elections because they are well-organized, have cohesive interests, and turn-out to vote in much higher numbers than parents of children in the schools.

No, the NYT hasn’t suddenly decided to publicize the money-grabbing, electoral bullying of teacher unions in large numbers of school districts all around the country.  Instead the NYT is concerned about the money-grabbing, electoral bullying of a community of Orthodox Jews in Rockland County, NY.

Well, the NYT didn’t exactly describe the Orthodox Jews as money-grabbing: “Many of the Orthodox here and elsewhere feel crushed by the weight of high school taxes and private school tuition.”

The problem, as the NYT piece suggests, is the sense that schools ought be controlled by the families that send their children to those schools: “But increasingly, others are chafing at the idea that people who don’t send their children to the public schools are making the decisions for those from very different cultures who do.”

I have to say that I am sympathetic to this concern.  There are problems with control over schools being located outside of the families whose children attend those schools.  But, unlike the NYT, I don’t restrict my concern to instances involving Orthodox Jews. 

It concerns me that President Obama, who has never sent his children to public schools, and Arne Duncan, who intentionally avoided placing his children in DC public schools, are making decisions to compel children to return to D.C. public schools. 

It concerns me that teacher unions dominate school board elections all over the country, placing their financial interests ahead of the educational interests of children.  In many urban school districts disproportionate numbers of teacher union members also don’t send their own children to the public schools.

The obvious solution is to increase control over schools by the families that attend them by giving those families vouchers.  Empowered with vouchers, schools will be responsive to the interests of current and prospective students rather than the interests of people whose children do not attend those schools is order to attract and retain the revenue those vouchers bring.

Of course, the general regulatory framework governing schools could still be under democratic control, including non-parents.  But let’s restrict the general public’s involvement in controlling schools  to the broad regulatory issues that affect the public’s interests as opposed to the operational details of individual schools.

USDoE Yanks Opportunity From DC Children

April 11, 2009


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner

Rotherham’s cynical take looks a little more on target this morning, while my own optimism looks a bit more naive. This morning the Washington Post ran an editorial blasting the United States Department of education for their latest attack on the DC Opportunity Scholarship program.

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision — made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall — comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it’s clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

Secretary Duncan seems to be taking this action simply to create, as the WaPo describes, a presumption of death about the program in advance of next year’s reauthorization effort. The decision, as the WaPo describes, is extremely disruptive to lives of many families:

It’s a choice President Obama made when he enrolled his two children in the elite Sidwell Friends School. It’s a choice Mr. Duncan had when, after looking at the D.C. schools, he ended up buying a house in Arlington, where good schools are assumed. And it’s a choice taken away this week from LaTasha Bennett, a single mother who had planned to start her daughter in the same private school that her son attends and where he is excelling. Her desperation is heartbreaking as she talks about her daughter not getting the same opportunities her son has and of the hardship of having to shuttle between two schools.

Sadly for LaTasha Bennett and her children the above photo is increasingly becoming less of a pointed joke and more of a reality.  How can anyone feel anything other than dismay to watch the nation’s first African American President, himself a product of private education, enroll his own daughters in an elite private institution and then rip that same opportunity away from people like LaTasha Bennett?

This action is in stark contrast with everything for which the left allegedly stands. As George Orwell once wrote: Four legs good, two legs better! The Washington Post makes it clear why the administration is behaving so disgracefully:

It’s clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents’ needs, student performance and program effectiveness don’t matter next to the political demands of teachers’ unions. Congressional Democrats who receive ample campaign contributions from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers laid the trap with budget language that placed the program on the block. And now comes Mr. Duncan with the sword.

Duncan and Obama should both be ashamed of themselves.

Obama’s Courage, and “Courage,” on GM

April 1, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

On Monday, Jay praised the president’s “courage” because the media were reporting that the administration was talking about bankruptcy for GM. I posted a comment to the effect that the media reports cited unnamed sources, and nobody should be praised for “courage” until somebody stood up and said “bankruptcy” in front of TV cameras.

Right after that, what does the president do but get up and say “bankruptcy” in front of TV cameras?

So, credit where it’s due. It was a bold move.

But there are two kinds of courage: the courage of the man who is resolved to do a hard thing because it’s right, and the courage of the man who is resolved to do a hard thing because it’s necessary to save his own skin.

We’ve yet to see which kind of courage this is. In today’s Journal, the indispensable Holman Jenkins makes the case that the president is bluffing because he needs to create the impression that he’s serious about bankruptcy.

Whatever else we may say about the president, he knows one thing the Clintons don’t: even if the only thing you care about is your own survival, you still have to take risks periodically. If you always do the “safe” thing, you’ll end up less safe.

Symbols Matter

March 11, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay points out that the president’s speech on education yesterday doesn’t resemble his legislative agenda. But it’s worse than that. There are things Obama could do to promose these good reform ideas even without legislation or budget changes, but won’t.

He calls on states to lift their charter caps. But what does he plan to do about charter caps? Even without extending federal authority over the states on charter policy, there’s plenty he could do, as Jay Matthews points out:

Will the Obama Education Department prepare and publicize a list of all the charter school cap laws in the country? Will Duncan call the governors, and legislators and school boards responsible for them and ask them to remove those restrictions on new charters, and find a way to get rid of bad charters?

Is the pope Muslim?

So on pretty much all fronts, the president’s “plan” for education is just symbolism.

But you know what? Symbols matter! The president is using his position in the spotlight to endorse choice and competition (as he did during the campaign) and rewards for performance, the two indispensable principles of sound educational reform. Even if he’s only doing it because Democratic constituencies other than the education unions expect it, it matters that the president has chosen to align himself with those constituencies rather than the unions. He could easily have taken the old line and kowtowed to the unions. But he didn’t, and that counts for something. So let’s give the president his due.

Now if only he had stopped his pals in Congress (who look an awful lot like his bosses these days) from kowtowing to the unions on vouchers.

Why President Obama is an Outlier

March 5, 2009
(Guest Post by Dan Lips)

In his new book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines why some people become extraordinarily successful and others do not.

Challenging the conventional notion of the self-made man, Gladwell argues that most great success stories spring from unique advantages and opportunities that enable remarkable achievement.

Consider Bill Gates. Most people know how, as a young computer whiz, he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and revolutionize the software industry and the American economy in the process. But often overlooked in this simple tale are the events in Gates’ life that put him on the path to greatness.

Gladwell explains that, as a teenager, Gates attended a private school that offered a computer club. At a time when few colleges were offering students hands-on computer experience, Gates was practicing real-time computer programming in the eighth grade. This early experience led Gates to capitalize on other unique opportunities, including working part-time testing code for a local tech company and sneaking into the University of Washington at night to steal time computer programming.

These unique opportunities made Bill Gates an outlier, as he admits: “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”

Or consider perhaps the greatest outlier of our time: President Barack Obama. Part of what captures the public’s imagination about our new president is that his is the quintessential tale of the self-made man.

You know the story. The son of an absent African father, the young Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in middle-class America. He went on to earn degrees from Columbia and Harvard University, where he became the first black president of the law review. This historic achievement earned the young lawyer a book deal from a top publisher and a grip on a career ladder that he climbed to the top of Illinois politics and, finally, to the White House.

Perhaps the most important door to open in young Obama’s life came in 1971, when, at age 10, he received a scholarship to enroll in the private Punahoa school in Hawaii.

He spent the next eight years learning aside the children of the elite in the state’s most prestigious school, where he came to thrive in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.

After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama returned to the school and spoke about its importance in his life: “There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful.”

In the cases of both Gates and Obama, it takes a special person to take advantage of their opportunities. But it’s fair to conclude that Gates likely wouldn’t have founded Microsoft had he not joined a computer club in 1967, and that Obama wouldn’t have become president had he not attended the Punahoa school.

In the latter case, one wonders what might have become of Obama had he not received his scholarship. Would he have even graduated from college (let alone Columbia and Harvard) if he attended one of Hawaii’s generally mediocre public schools instead of Punahoa? The America’s Promise Alliance reports that the high-school graduation rate in Honolulu’s public schools is just 64 percent. In 2007, only 20 percent of Hawaii’s eighth-grade students scored “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The point of Gladwell’s book isn’t to explain away our greatest successes, but to challenge us to create a society where one doesn’t have to be an outlier to be a success. “To build a better world,” he writes, “we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success with a society that provides opportunities to all.”

One way to level the playing field would be to give all children access to educational opportunities similar to those enjoyed by Gates and Obama. The new president could help make that a reality in the US by supporting the principle that all families — regardless of background — should have the power to choose the best school for their children and by challenging lawmakers across the country to make that promise a reality.

President Obama knows the benefit of that opportunity — he’s passing it along to his daughters by enrolling them in an elite private school in Washington. As president, he could fight to give more children in the District and beyond the same opportunity.

Every child deserves a chance to become the next Bill Gates or Barack Obama, not just the outliers.

Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation.