Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama’s voucher plan isn’t enough

In order to head off a public-relations catastrophe, Barack Obama has spun a partial about-face in his opposition to the school-choice voucher program for low-income students in Washington, DC. The president’s move, however, falls far short of truly saving the program and helping the legions of disadvantaged children in the nation’s capital.

Here’s a short chronology of Obama’s zigs and zags. After first seeming open to vouchers if they could be proven to help kids, then-candidate Obama reversed course and opposed vouchers because he decided that they hadn’t improved student outcomes. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released a study of the Washington, DC voucher program that found that students using the voucher to go to a private school achieved at a significantly higher level in reading than students attending regular Washington, DC public schools. Despite this finding, the Obama administration decided to rescind the voucher scholarships for 200 students who won the 2009 lottery for those scholarships. After a large protest demonstration by the mostly African-American parents and students benefiting from the DC vouchers, the president decided to rescind his rescission and guarantee voucher scholarships to all students currently receiving the scholarships until they graduate from high school. The president’s latter actions are insincere at best, and a blatant political ploy at worst.

Observers across the political spectrum don’t believe that the president had a road-to-Damascus moment on vouchers. The Economist magazine said: “The stay of execution [for the DC voucher program] had a lot to do with political expediency. Ending the scheme immediately would not only have disrupted the education of 1,700 children; it would also have exposed both [education secretary Arne] Duncan and his boss to charges of hypocrisy. Mr. Duncan sends his children to school in Virginia, and Mr. Obama pays for his two daughters to go to Sidwell Friends [private school].” Reading the administration’s tea leaves, the Washington Post speculated that “there was also some thought given to the political optics of booting hundreds of poor, black students from private schools back into troubled public schools.” Perhaps the best line came from Rick Hess, education expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Like a guilty teenager who wrecks the family car and then generously offers to pay for a tank of gas,” observed Hess, “the administration’s proposal is insulting in its earnestness.” Hess noted that Obama and his officials stood by silently as congressional Democrats attacked the voucher program and as the National Education Association threatened any Democrat who sided with the program. Hess rightly worries that “the administration will score some quick points for this too-clever-by-half ‘pragmatism’ while persuading pundits to look past the double talk on respecting data, seeking out solutions that work, and putting interests of kids before those of adults.”

For all his fancy PR footwork, Obama’s bone to the current voucher-receiving students in DC fails to answer the larger question facing students across the nation. If vouchers are improving the performance of students and parents and their children are happy with their new private schools, then why not extend the program to those who aren’t currently receiving vouchers?

In a hearing on the DC voucher program which he chaired, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) argued that if the program is working it should be continued so more children, not just the ones already receiving the scholarships, can benefit. “We happen to have the facts on our side,” Lieberman said, “We also have justice on our side.”

President Obama should heed the letter signed by 14 senators, including California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, expressing “disappointment” in the president’s decision to bar new students from taking advantage of the DC vouchers. The senators urge the president to “reverse your decision and allow funding to be used to allow the maximum number of low-income students trapped in underperforming schools to benefit from the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

Barack Obama’s cover-my-backside half-measure should garner him no accolades. It’s simply not enough, Mr. President.


Vouching for vouchers

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty supports President Obama's disingenuous ploy to allow students already enrolled in the D.C. voucher program to continue until they graduate, so long as no new vouchers are provided to their younger siblings ("D.C. willing to discuss extending voucher plan," Metro, Friday). D.C. spent $15,798 per public school student in 2007, and yet only 12 percent of eighth graders are proficient in reading and only 8 percent are proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The D.C. voucher program provided scholarships of up to $7,500 (less than 50 percent of public school spending) for inner-city students to attend private schools. The Obama budget provides trillions of dollars for dubious make-work projects and middle-class entitlements like the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but it supports dysfunctional education bureaucracies instead of quality education in this so-called era of change.

Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, once remarked: "It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve. It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

It's time to admit that discussing the voucher program isn't the same as extending the voucher program.


Australia: Incompetent teacher training under fire

When will they admit that the problem is that teaching has become an option for desperates only as classroom discipline has become virtually non-existent?

UNIVERSITIES are under attack from fellow educators for failing to produce teachers ready for the classroom. One stakeholder is calling for universities to raise teaching course cut-off marks to increase the desirability of the profession. Others warn the courses aren't rigorous enough and are calling for "teacher schools" or internships.

The calls are being made in response to the Masters Report recommendations. Professor Geoff Masters was commissioned by Premier Anna Bligh to help raise the standards of literacy and numeracy among students. Professor Masters reported doubts over teachers' numeracy and literacy standards and recommended they sit a test.

The Queensland Catholic Education Commission wants an OP of around 12 to be targeted as a minimum entry requirement for university teaching courses instead of a test, arguing responsibility for teachers being numerate and literate "should be placed firmly with tertiary institutions". "Analysis of QTAC enrolments 2007-2008 admissions indicates that education courses as a whole, let alone primary education courses, are not attracting high performing academic students," their submission says. "Only 15 per cent of students entering education courses had an OP1-7; three times as many (46 per cent) had OPs of 13-19. "The desirability of teaching as a profession needs to be increased for students with higher academic achievement." The QCEC would also like to see some prerequisite level of mathematics ability for entry into primary education tertiary courses.

Independent Schools Queensland said while they didn't reject the notion of a teacher test, they would prefer action that ensured universities had rigorous assessment practices which properly prepared graduates for the classroom, including internships.

The Queensland Association of State School Principals has also attacked the rigor of university training, arguing extra training schools or internships are needed to ensure pre-service teachers are ready for the classroom.

Both the QCEC and ISQ have not supported a recommendation for standard science tests to be introduced in Years 4, 6, 8 and 10 to help identify struggling students. All groups have supported recommendations calling for extra funding. [Funnily enough]


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