Wednesday, December 03, 2008

President-elect Obama offers poor no `change' on school choice

Barack Obama's historic election victory and eloquence will surely inspire American parents and students alike, but they are likely in for disappointment as well, especially those with limited means. On the issue of school choice, change has not come to America. A gap remains between what the president-elect says and what he does.

Obama's family could have sent him to regular government schools in Hawaii, but instead chose to enroll him at the elite Punahou School. Out of many college possibilities, he chose Columbia University. Out of many law schools, he selected Harvard. With a law degree from Harvard, he could have taught or practiced just about anywhere. He chose to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, another elite school, which was glad to have him.

As a family man, Barack Obama showed he learned the lesson of choice. He and Michelle could have sent their daughters Sasha and Malia to the regular government schools in the Chicago area. Instead, they chose to send them to the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where annual tuition ranges from $15,000 to more than $20,445 for high school.

Although that was well within the Obamas' pay grade, private school - even those that charge much less - is not affordable for many other parents. But Barack Obama opposes their right to choose the school they believe best suits their children.

Wisconsin has a voucher plan that lets parents of limited income do just that. Polly Williams, an African-American state legislator known as the "Rosa Parks of school choice," was its prime mover. The voucher plan has been upheld by the courts, but the president-elect opposes it. However, he did tell the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in February that he had something of an open mind, and that if vouchers were shown to be successful, he would favor "what works for kids."

The Wisconsin choice plan is indeed successful, and so are similar plans around the country, but Obama's mind has since closed up on choice.

In June he told Jake Tapper of ABC News that choice might benefit some kids at the top, but it leaves others at the bottom. There weren't enough openings for every child to go to a parochial or private school. Choice would also be "a huge drain of resources out of the public schools," Obama said, adding, "I think it would be overall bad for most kids."

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Barack Obama has it backward. Those at the top don't need voucher programs. Those at the bottom do, and they have their eyes on the prize. The president-elect opposes their right to choose, and does so in the dog-eared rhetoric of teacher union bosses, which has proved to be bogus. Choice does not drain resources from public schools but instead improves their performance.

There is no educational, social, or legal argument against school choice. There are only political arguments, like those deployed by a president-elect who claims to represent change, but actually backs a government monopoly status quo that traps kids in failing, dangerous schools.

Barack Obama is not the first to showcase that contradiction. During their stay in Washington, the Clintons sent daughter Chelsea to the private Sidwell Friends School, which prompted Polly Williams to say, "Bill and Hillary Clinton shouldn't be the only people who live in public housing who can send their kid to private school." The Obamas also bypassed the D.C. public system and will be sending Sasha and Malia to Sidwell Friends as well.

So it will be interesting to see how the new president deals with the D.C. voucher plan. Like choice programs everywhere, it has proven popular with low-income families, predominately African-American, but has had to fight for its very existence.

An advocate in the White House would help. If he truly wants change, Barack Obama should support full parental choice in education for all Americans as a matter of basic civil rights.


Government Education Is Broken? It Just Ain't So!

New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert is rightfully worried about American education. He's bothered that no one else seems worried. In his article "Clueless in America" (April 22), Herbert notes a lack of concern in coverage of the presidential campaign. He says, "[Education] is much too serious a topic to compete with such fun stuff as Hillary tossing back a shot of whiskey, or Barack rolling a gutter ball." He's disturbed that "no one seems to have the will to engage any of the most serious challenges facing the U.S."

Mr. Herbert's rant hits hard on the facts of educational failure: "An American kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That's more than a million every year, a sign of big trouble for these largely clueless youngsters." More: "A recent survey of teenagers found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900." And so on.

He quotes Microsoft's Bill Gates saying, "By obsolete, I don't just mean that they [the high schools] are broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools-even when they're working as designed-cannot teach all our students what they need to know today."

Finally, Herbert cites the Educational Testing Service's report, "America's Perfect Storm," which warns of a triad of "powerful forces" threatening our children's future: wide disparity of literacy and math skills, "seismic changes" in the economy, and sweeping demographic changes. He concludes that "we" are not equipping our children to meet these challenges and seems to imply that beating other countries on standardized tests will save us from this Malthusian triad.

Somehow, reading Herbert's article reminded me (Alan) of a story my father used to tell about the old trains on the New Haven line, on which he commuted into New York City each day. Occasionally, these rolling sardine cans would break down or lose power. All of a sudden, some red-faced passenger-an executive about to have a blood-pressure incident-would explode, "Somebody do something!!!" Like the pressured executive on the train, Herbert is right to be alarmed. But like the executive, his reaction is inappropriate for the crisis at hand. In fairness, it's not all Herbert's fault. He doesn't know how the machine actually works. His frustration stems from placing his faith in (and addressing his demands to) the wrong entity.

Herbert is working from two fallacies: that the government school system is a failure and that the government can fix it. You could almost miss the fallacies behind his powerful litany of failures. Everyone, especially the present audience, will nod his head to this litany and think of even more failures to add to the list. The problem is, it just ain't so! It's a fallacy to think government schools have failed. In fact, the problems Herbert lists are not a result of the school system's failure, but of its success. To understand this point, we must stop and consider the true purpose of government schooling. The following passage from John Taylor Gatto just scratches the surface. I hope you will read the rest of this article, "Against School" (Harper's, September 2003):
The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

To make good people.

To make good citizens.

To make each person his or her personal best.

These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education's mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling's true purpose.

Gatto then quotes H.L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury (April 1924) that "the aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim . . . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else."

What we observe as the failures of our system of compulsory schooling are actually the inevitable fruits of its true purpose: standardized citizenry. If we are to truly understand what has given rise to Bob Herbert's litany (which is actually modest compared with the full story), we must acknowledge that the government school system actually works too well. The lack of "will to engage" that Herbert laments is a product of this system, a system designed to "put down dissent and originality."

The second fallacy is almost as easily missed. Speaking of presidential candidates in terms of whiskey or bowling is merely a rhetorical device. But although drinking and bowling may be within the right and power of those aspiring to the highest office in the land, fixing education is not. It's quite simple: the federal government's powers are strictly outlined in the Constitution. All other powers "not enumerated" are forbidden. Education is not enumerated. Ergo, it's not the feds' job.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby in his column of October 17, 2007, puts it succinctly: "[W]e should be concerned. Not just because the quality of government schooling is so often poor or its costs so high. . . . "In a society founded on political and economic liberty, government schools have no place. Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children's minds and character."

Once exposed, the two fallacies point to one historically stubborn dynamic: Government involvement in schooling is the real "perfect storm." Therefore, to hope that candidates will talk about fixing education-or to think that the federal government should have any say in how we as free people educate our children-is to give the fox the keys to the hen house for another four-year term.

Instead, let's be practical. As parents, let's do everything in our power to take back our children for their protection and prosperity, and for freedom itself. That will make us an example of freedom to our own children and to others. It will open children's lives to the creative thinking and wisdom that will enable them to rise above the challenges they will face. Gatto again: "Children need to know that the ultimate form of private property is full possession of one's own mind and volition." Withholding consent will also further indict the system.

Let's possess freedom and not wait for the ruling powers to hand it to us. Meanwhile, candidates and presidents may talk about education. Let them. But let's not give them our children.


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