Say It Isn’t So, Barack

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.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    Sounds like Barack has his liberal boiler plate down pat.

    I cant believe this whiny “if we have vouchers well then the public schools would only be left with the worst kids” argument.

    Look, back in the 80’s the teachers unions tried this same stunt when the Catholic Dioceses in New York City offered to do a test pilot program of vouchers.

    The teachers tried this same dodge so Cardinal O’Connor, eager to prove his schools could do a better job said “Fine, you pick em”

    Of course the City had to refuse the offer entirely, because they knew what lay in store for them should they accept. Kids would be educated, and teachers unions would look very quickly like fools.

    Would that we had such an opportunity on a national scale and leadership that could stand up to the NEA storm troopers. Personally I think the chance is remote. Were it to happen I would rate it right up there with the finding of a second set of Dead Sea scrolls or the appearance of the 2001 Monolith.

    • dean

      “NEA stormtroopers”? A bit of rhetorical hyperbole there Rupert. Sure O’Connor wanted public money to keep his Catholic shools funded. And sure, he would take any kid they sent. He just wouldn’t necessarily keep them.

      • Steve Buckstein

        Dean, while I agree that “NEA stormtroopers” is an extreme characterization, based on my personal experience with the leadership of the local NEA affiliate a few years ago, the OEA, I would characterize many of them as bullies and goons.

        When I presented a school choice proposal before their board, I knew they would disagree. But, I was shocked at how they acted. Cat calls, obscenities, and even an anti-semitic slur. In short, they acted like juvenile delinquents.

        When I reported this experience to a colleague who was a public school teacher, he wondered why I was surprised. “Remember,” he told me, “these are the goons we hire to get us what we want in our collective bargaining agreements.”

        • dean

          Steve…ok, I appreciate your personal experience. Unions have been known to use inimidating tactics, as have employers. Union teachers clearly see school choice that includes private non-union shops as a backdoor way of undermining their position, as opposed to a positive way to educate kids. From their perspective, its no different than outsourcing car production to non union shops is to the auto workers.

          I have no fixed position in this issue, but I do feel it has become more about union bashing than about education. Read past posts on your own site here about teacher’s unions to get a feel for the vitriol some on the right hold towards teachers unions. Many want to break them because they help elect Democrats. It has little to do with the kids. (I’m not sugesting that is your personal perspective).

          As for Obama, my sense is that he is trying to find a middle ground by endorsing merit pay and public charter schools while opposing public funding of private schools. As a community organizer in a low income Chicago neighborhood he saw (and wrote about) failing public schools. As the standard bearer of the Democratic party he has unions as a major constituency. It will be interesting to see if he manages to thread the needle on this one.

          • Steve Buckstein

            Dean, my intent with school choice is not to bash unions – it is about helping kids. I understand the needle that Obama and other politicians who rely on union support must thread, but I’m hoping they will see that the constituency of middle and low income parents is much larger than the constituency of the teachers unions.

            Many public school teachers send their own kids to private schools, just like Obama does. In fact, as of the 2000 census, 20% of the public school teachers who lived in Portland sent their kids to private schools, compared to just 12.7% of their neighbors. The comparison is similar in many large cities, so politicians beholden to the unions may actually not lose all the teacher votes if they support school choice. And, they stand to gain the votes of the powerless parents they seek to represent.

  • Anonymous


    Many people on this site want to break teachers unions because they hurt kids (by limiting their chances in life), not because they help Democrats.

    • dean

      Steve…its not just the teacher votes. Its broader union support if he disses the teachers.

      As a libertarian, what is your core reason to want to “help the kids.” In effect, if you take money from taxpayers and give it to parents to send their kids to whatever school they want, doesn’t that contradict libertarian philosophy? Isn’t it statism? Shouldn’t parents just be respnsible for their own kids education? I’m not being facetious. I’m just curious how and where you draw your lines.

      • Steve Buckstein

        Dean, my core reason for wanting to “help the kids” is probably the same as yours (assuming you want to help them). Every child will do better in life and contribute more to society of he or she is well educated.

        Yes, taking money from taxpayers to spend on anyone else’s education contradicts libertarian philosophy, but we’re dealing with the real world here. The money is already being taken and spent through a government school system that is failing to educated way too many kids. As Milton Friedman articulated back in 1955, we should have as much choice in education as possible. Just because taxpayers pay for the system, that doesn’t mean that government needs to actually build the buildings, hire the teachers, and compel families to send their children to specific schools. Let the parents decide where to send their children, and thus where the taxpayer money goes.

        Libertarians generally believe that even poor parents are capable of making good choices about their children’s education. Apparently many politicians, and the teachers unions, are more paternalistic.

        • dean

          Thanks for clarifying. I agree most parents are capable of making good choices for their kids. Some are clearly not, like the one in the paper today who drove drunk with her kid in the back seat and clipped about a dozen cars in her SUV.

          I wonder if the percent of kids who fail in schools is about the same as the percent of failing parents. If that is the case, then school choice would not go to the root (as you say) of the problem.

          • Steve Buckstein

            Dean, I doubt that the percentage of kids who fail in school equal the percentage of “failing parents” but it’s an interesting assumption. More likely, in my opinion, is that even kids in “good” families are failing in school because the government school system has deteriorated as special interests (unions) have solidified power. More money doesn’t help, but school choice will.

          • dean

            Steve, if more money does not help, then why does Catlin Gabel charge $16-20K per year tuition? You would think they would offer their very high quality programs for 1/2 that, like public schools.

          • Steve Buckstein

            Dean, Catlin Gable is a private school. I have no idea why it charges what it does, but whatever the tuition, taxpayers aren’t on the hook. You’ll find many private schools in Oregon charging one quarter of those rates; it’s just that most people haven’t heard of them.

            Oregon public schools’ all funds budgets now average well over $11,000 per student – twice the cost (adjusted for inflation) as in the 1970s.

            Perhaps the lesson is that more money by itself doesn’t help. It’s how the money is used that can make a difference.

          • dean

            No disagreement on that last point.

  • Jerry

    School choice should be for everyone, not some select group of malcontents.

    • dean

      Jerry…being facetious again? Select group of malcontents?