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Silencing Voices for School Choice

Attorney General Eric Holder tries to kill a TV ad supporting D.C. school vouchers.

12:00 AM, Oct 27, 2009 • By SHERYL BLUNT
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President Obama isn't taking kindly to a television ad that criticizes his opposition to a popular scholarship program for poor children, and his administration wants the ad pulled.

Former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous of D.C. Children First said October 16 that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had recently approached him and told him to kill the ad.

The 30-second ad, which has been airing on FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, and News Channel 8 to viewers in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, urges the president to reauthorize the federally-funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for D.C. students to attend private schools.

The ad features Chavous and a young boy--one of 216 students whose scholarships were rescinded by the Department of Education earlier this year when the agency announced no new students would be allowed into the program. The ad also includes an excerpt taken from one of Obama's campaign statements.

"We're losing several generations of kids," Obama says, "and something has to be done."

"President Obama is ending a program that helps low-income kids go to better schools, refusing to let any new children in," Chavous says in the ad. "I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I support our president. But it's wrong that he won't support an education program that helps our kids learn."

The young 5th-grade student then pleads for the president's help. "President Obama, I need a good education right now," he says. "You can help. Do it for me."

The nation's first black president has come under intense criticism for failing to support the program that is helping poor African-American students escape some of the nation's most dangerous and worst-performing public schools. After embracing the teachers unions' anti-voucher stance, the president now finds himself in the uncomfortable and awkward position of denying students access to a program that has strong bipartisan, local support, and that multiple studies say is helping poor African-American children succeed.

Little wonder then that the president and powerful allies like Holder--many of whom have benefited from school choice and are currently sending their children to expensive private schools--want the ad to go away.

Chavous discussed Holder's comments during an Oct. 16 interview with WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi and NBC 4 reporter Tom Sherwood during Nnamdi's The Politics Hour. A related article on Holder's objection to the ad on blackamericaweb.com has also been circulating.

During the broadcast Chavous elaborated on his interaction with Holder, and said he will continue running the ad until the president agrees to support the program.

"I saw [Holder] at an event," said Chavous. "He did ask me in front of others to pull the ad. My response was, 'No, and I tell you what, if the president does the right thing, not only will we pull it but we will celebrate him.' "

"We have high hopes based on his capacity to understand the plight of low-income families," continued Chavous. "You know what, if this were 20 years ago and community organizer Obama was in this city and picking sides, he'd be right here in this studio fighting for these parents and these kids, and we want him to remember from whence he came, and [support] these families. He had the benefit of scholarships--many of us have--and I think that these families who have already been awarded scholarships that were taken away from them by the administration, they should have that benefit as well."

In a separate interview Chavous said he did not believe Holder's comment was an official request. "It wasn't like the administration was leaning on me to pull the ad--this wasn't an intimidation play," said Chavous, adding that he knows Holder and his wife. "This is someone who is a friend, who saw me, and let me know his thinking."

Chavous said he told U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan this summer that he and other voucher supporters would be ramping up efforts to save the embattled program that must be re-authorized to continue.

"I told them, 'I'm not going to let up on this because you're not doing the right thing and I'm not going to let up,'" said Chavous. "I think they made a calculated decision that they could wait us out . . . and I want to disabuse them of that strategy. That will not be an effective strategy. We're not going anywhere until these kids get into these schools. It's just the right thing to do."

Chavous said he's been surprised at the overwhelming amount of support and encouragement he's received from the ad. "It goes to show that the folks in this town embrace choice full-throttle," he said.

Secretary Arne Duncan said in an email through a Department of Education spokesman that while "this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any Administration in history," he believes that "vouchers are not the solution to America's educational challenges. Taking a tiny percentage of the kids out of the public school system and putting them in private schools is not the answer. We need to be more ambitious. We need to fix all of our schools."

The program's defenders have signaled that the ad campaign is just getting started, and that more hard-hitting ads are on the way.

The National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and People for the American Way have been waging a massive campaign to try to kill the voucher program, which they say takes money and focus away from public schools and is discriminatory.

"Vouchers are not real education reform," wrote the NEA's Director of Government Relations Diane Shust in a June letter to U.S. Senators. "Pulling children out of the public school system doesn't solve problems--it ignores them."

But in a revealing 2006 comment to the Washington Post, Washington Teachers Union President George Parker (whose parent union is the AFT) explained what really worries the teachers unions, and why children must not be allowed to leave D.C.'s troubled public schools.

"The landscape has changed. Our parents are voting with their feet," Parker said. "As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we'll have teachers to represent."

More candid teachers' union moments came this summer when the NEA's former General Counsel Bob Chanin addressed the group's national convention.

"Despite what some among us would like to believe it is not because of our creative ideas; it is not because of the merit of our positions; it is not because we care about children; and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child," Chanin proclaimed. "[The] NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year." To which Chanin received a standing ovation.

Chanin also told delegates that anti-union sentiment was "the price we pay for success."

The price the teacher's unions and their members were willing to pay to ensure their presidential candidate's success was steep. In August of 2008 the NEA announced a $50 million election campaign plan to elect Obama by targeting swing states.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama received $22.9 million from individuals affiliated with the "Education Industry" during the 2008 election cycle alone. That's a whopping $21.1 million more than Sen. John McCain received from the same industry. These donations came predominately from individuals--many of whom are teachers' union members--employed by educational institutions, colleges and schools. Teacher's unions spent millions more dollars on independent expenditures on Obama's behalf that is not even included in these figures.

Prior to his election, then-Illinois state Sen. Obama acknowledged that political realities meant that candidates cannot always answer or act from the heart.

Asked by Chicago Tribune writer David Mendell whether it might have been wiser to spend hundreds of millions of dollars improving Chicago's troubled public schools rather than on Millennium Park, Obama replied: "How do you really expect me to answer that? If I told you how I really felt, I'd be committing political suicide right here in front of you."

Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.