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Forbes.com

President Obama Fails the Kids in the DC Voucher Program

Ignoring the program's big successes, Congress and Obama pay off the teachers' unions

Shikha Dalmia
April 20, 2009

Perhaps hard-bitten cynics aren't surprised by the quiet ruthlessness with which this administration has deep-sixed a popular D.C. school voucher program. But for everyone else—or, rather, everyone else not in bed with teachers' unions—its conduct has to come as a total shock.

D.C. public schools are violent, chaotic places that have among the highest dropout—and the lowest graduation—rates in the country. In 2007, D.C.'s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored lower than children from all 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation's most reliable standardized test. Less than half of its children are "proficient"—meaning they perform at grade-level—in reading and math.

Against this grim reality, one would have thought an administration that ran on the theme of hope would do anything to nurture a program that offers a way out of D.C.'s hope-killing factories and into other schools.

Instead, the Obama administration has done everything in its power to strangle it. Obama cheerfully signed a spending bill that gratuitously included a provision phasing out the program next year unless Congress expressly reauthorizes it. Of course, making water flow uphill will be easier than winning approval from a Democrat-controlled Congress with strong ties to the teachers' unions who contribute tens of millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns.

As if that wasn't a big enough obstacle, no sooner had the ink dried on the law than Education Secretary Arne Duncan rescinded the scholarship offer to children admitted for next year, making the program's shuttering a fait accompli.

And now it turns out that, while the program's fate was being sealed in Congress, the administration deliberately sat on a study its own Department of Education completed weeks earlier. Why? Because the study found not that the program was failing, but that it was succeeding.

In fact, the program, with per-pupil costs that are a third of what D.C. public schools spend, is producing solid gains for the 1,700 predominantly poor and minority children it serves. Indeed, the first batch of children who received vouchers from the program for private schools is now 19 months ahead of its public school peers in reading—which is why there are four applicants for every available slot.

But transparency is not the only principle the administration has sacrificed in this matter. In fact, the layers of hypocrisy underlying its conduct would make even Machiavelli blush.

First: This administration has proudly boasted that it would make a decisive break with its predecessor's habit of ignoring science when it clashed with policy objectives. And concerning the D.C. program in particular, President Obama had assured that he would let evidence settle its fate. "Let's see if it [the voucher program] works," he said during the campaign. "And if it does, whatever my preconceptions, you do what's best for the kids." Yet far from being led by the scientific evidence, he concealed it.

Second: The administration has been airdropping money across the country in an alleged attempt to stimulate the economy. Indeed, it increased education spending 10-fold for two years in its $750 billion stimulus package that includes, among other things, money to weather-proof school buildings. It has also been pouring trillions of dollars into failed banks and auto companies. Yet it didn't think it fit to spend an infinitesimal $14 million on a thriving program that makes a palpable difference in the lives of children desperately in need of help.

Third: President Obama has promised to lead the most ethical administration, one immune from the corruption of special-interest politics. Yet he offered not even a pretense of resistance to the biggest Democratic interest group: teachers unions—even though it is evident that what's driving their opposition to this program is not principle but naked self-interest.

To be sure, unions have long pretended to oppose vouchers not because they are afraid of competition but because vouchers drain resources from public school children. But the D.C. program didn't do that. In fact, precisely to address this objection, the program was structured to keep D.C. public schools financially stable, meaning they lose no funding when their students transfer elsewhere. If anything, they have more money to spend on the remaining children. Obama would have done all D.C. children a service by pointing out this inconvenient truth—but he chose to remain silent.

Four: The most blatant hypocrisy involves Obama's personal parental decisions. He chose to send his own daughters to Sidwell Friends, a private school among D.C.'s most exclusive institutions whose annual tuition runs around $30,000. If he felt so strongly that offering children an exit route would stymie the reform of public schools, then why not put his own daughters in one? Jimmy Carter did. This would not only please unions—prompting them to open up their war chest even more in the next elections—but also signal his resolve about reform. If he didn't, that's presumably because his daughters' futures are too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of politics. But, evidently, the futures of other children are not.

Incidentally, among the children who will have to return to public school once this program is scrapped are two of his daughter's schoolmates, who were using their vouchers to attend Sidwell. It's sad that Obama's message of hope and change doesn't include children like them.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article was originally published at Forbes.com.


Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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