Presidential candidate Barack Obama promises voters that he is a different kind of politician. There hasn’t been much proof of that yet, but Obama did hint early on that education reform might be the issue where voters actually would see “Change.”
It would have been a perfect fit for Obama. As an African-American, he would know better than most whites just how poorly America’s inner-city school districts perform. The national dropout rate for African-Americans is 45 percent.
In addition, African-Americans (Obama’s strongest constituency) support school choice at a rate higher than any other ethnic group. A recent Harvard poll showed 67% of blacks support school choice for low-income students and 52% support vouchers for all children in failing public schools.
One would think that Obama, as an African-American, has some room to break from the education special interest groups on this issue. It would be hard for white liberals who support the status quo to criticize a black presidential candidate championing the right of every black child in America to get a decent education. The statistics and the emotional rhetoric would appear to provide candidate Obama a great deal of political cover.
So imagine the disappointment in the African-American community in Washington, D.C. when Barack Obama recently refused to stand up for their voucher program as Congress threatened to end it. Nineteen hundred students and their families were facing the prospect of having to leave the schools where they were succeeding and being forced to return to one of the worst performing inner-city school districts in the country.
Public pressure from many African-American leaders has saved the program for one more year (although with reduced funding), but Barack Obama was not one of those who stood up. Bear in mind that the primary fight with Hillary Clinton was over, and Obama was free to take positions that might upset those on the political Left.
In fact he put out a statement opposing the program. According to ABC News (June 16, 2008):
On the same day that he was extolling the need to shake up the “status quo” in education, Obama also defended his opposition to school vouchers.
“We don’t have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools,” Obama said”¦.
“But what I don’t want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools,” he said. “That’s going to make things worse, and we’re going to lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so important to building this country.”
Barack Obama’s “commitment” to public schools might seem sincere if it weren’t for the fact that his two daughters attend a very exclusive private school, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where elementary tuition is $17-20,000 per year.
On the issue of educational choice, Obama is a hypocrite and, as it turns out, not a very different kind of politician at all.
Matt Wingard is Director of the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center.