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Race to the Bottom

Obama’s deeds belie his words on school reform.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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On education, as in many other policy areas, Barack Obama has been hailed as a bold reformer willing to take on entrenched interests, though there is little evidence to support that image beyond the words in his own speeches. Just last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks called him the “most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.” The supporting evidence offered came largely from a speech Obama gave in Virginia touting his “Race to the Top” program, which is meant to reward districts attempting reform with federal dollars.

The president did sound notes uncharacteristic of a Democrat, such as accountability for teachers and competition for students. He closed with an impassioned call for educational opportunity for all:

We’re going to raise the bar for all our students and take bigger steps towards closing the achievement gap that denies so many students, especially black and Latino students, a fair shot at their dreams. We’ll open up opportunity—evenly and equitably—across our education system, .  .  . we’ll reward success, and replicate it across the country.

Nearby in Washington, D.C., however, there were 1,700 students and families waiting for Obama to make good on his rhetoric. Help was not on the way.

“I almost choked up when he said they’re gonna make it a priority that kids have equal access to education,” said Virginia Walden Ford, a longtime school-choice activist in Washington. Walden Ford worked through the Clinton administration and into George W. Bush’s second term to get a pilot voucher program approved for a group of mostly low-income black and Hispanic families to escape failing public schools with $7,500 scholarships to private schools. 

On Tuesday, Walden Ford lost a yearlong battle to keep the program alive, as a vote to reauthorize it failed 42-55 on a mostly party-line vote in the U.S. Senate. 

“Another battle lost, but the war’s not over,” Walden Ford said. “I think it’s horrible that we’ve had to fight so hard for this little program. I really didn’t expect it to be this difficult,” though she conceded the uptick in Democratic senators in the 2008 elections, most of them backed by teachers’ unions, had made the political landscape unfavorable.

Led by Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, a bipartisan group of senators including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein has been trying to rescue the program since March 2009, when Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin inserted fatal language in an omnibus spending bill. Republican John Ensign of Nevada offered an amendment to save the program, but it was defeated.

The media coverage of Durbin’s blindside and the loud objections of school-choice advocates led the Obama administration to offer a sop to D.C. Opportunity Scholarship families: There would be no scholarships for new students after this school year, decreed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but kids currently participating in the program could keep their scholarships until they graduated.

Even that promise is now in danger, however, since the private scholarship fund that administers the program pulled out amid uncertainty about its future. Walden Ford said she’s had trouble getting a new organization to administer the program, which is exactly what voucher opponents hoped would happen when they threw its funding into doubt.

Studies have found great student and parent satisfaction with the program. In addition, as the Washington Post points out, “a rigorous, federally mandated study confirmed the program’s effectiveness,” showing statistically significant 3-5 month gains in reading among Opportunity Scholarship kids over their public-school counterparts. Dr. Patrick Wolf, investigator in charge of Department of Education evaluations of the program, noted at a May 2009 Senate committee hearing that the Opportunity Scholarship was one of a small minority of federal, experimental programs he’d studied that showed statistically significant improvements.

Despite a pledge to spend tax dollars not based on “whether an [education] idea is liberal or conservative,” but on “whether it works,” Obama remained silent as an innovative program was killed at the behest of teachers’ unions.

“There’s so many programs that have not worked that just continue year after year after year, like Head Start,” Walden Ford said. “This is not about children. This is politics at its worst.”

Head Start, a national early education program that costs $7 billion a year, was reauthorized in the very bill Durbin used to kill the Opportunity Scholarships. Ten months later, the administration released a long-overdue evaluation of Head Start that revealed “few sustained benefits” for Head Start students. Obama’s budget calls for an increase in Head Start funding, despite the program’s failure to meet his “whether it works” threshold.

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