February 10, 2015 | Commentary on Parental Choice in Education, Education

Give choice a chance

Barack Obama is a Washington, D.C., resident – and one with a high income. As he likes to openly admit, he’s one of the privileged 1 percent who he thinks can afford to pay more taxes.

Barack Obama also has all sorts of choices that many middle-class Americans don’t have, and almost all poor people are denied. The Obamas have opted out of the Washington, D.C., public schools and send their daughters to Sidwell Friends, a first-rate school with very high achievement standards. The Obama girls surely benefit from this enriching educational environment. What parent wouldn’t want that for his children?

Which brings me to, arguably, the most unconscionable policy choice hidden in President Obama’s $4 trillion budget. Mr. Obama proposed no funding next year for private school scholarship vouchers in the District of Columbia. The $20 million annual program, which began under George W. Bush, has proven extremely effective. Thousands of kids have benefited from these scholarships – which typically amount to about $8,000 to $10,000 a year.

That’s still about one-third lower than what it costs to “educate” students in the district’s public schools. Almost all students who get the money are blacks and Latinos.

The decision by this White House to defund the D.C. voucher program is a disgrace. Every year, four times as many D.C. minority children sign up for the voucher program than there are funded slots available.

Several years ago, when President Obama tried to shut down the program, black and Hispanic parents locked arms with Republicans in Congress who support the program and marched in front of the Capitol. That was an amazing optic. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights leaders and “community activists” fought against laws that prevent blacks from getting in to the public schools.

Now, liberals refuse to let them out.

Research by Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas tracked how well these kids did over time. Graduation rates of voucher students soared by 21 percentage points (from 70 percent to 91 percent). Mr. Obama likes to say that he puts science over ideology, but, in shutting down the scholarship program, he has clearly put ideology and political favoritism above reason.

He wants to shut down private-school choice for two reasons. First, teachers unions hate private-school choice because many private school teachers aren’t in the education union.

Second, the success of choice-based private schools in educating minorities and poor children gives public educators a big black eye because the kids do so much better with choice. How can these private and catholic schools outeducate the kids who go to second-rate schools? Maybe money for the classroom isn’t the cure-all it is advertised as.

So, in a $4 trillion budget, Mr. Obama couldn’t find $20 million for a program that indisputably works.

“The parents love the wide range of educational choices,” says Center for Education Reform President Kara Kerwin. “But President Obama just doesn’t support private school choice.” She adds that Barack Obama has tried to shut down this education program every year. The Left argues these programs hurt kids left in the public schools.

But private-school choice doesn’t make public schools weaker, as liberals fear. The money saved from kids attending private schools means more dollars per child for those who stay in public schools. This is a win-win. And competition always leads to higher, not lower, quality.

What is hopefully embarrassing to Mr. Obama is that some of the scholarship money goes to poor kids who want to go to Sidwell Friends. His girls sit in the same classrooms with these kids. If Mr. Obama succeeds, schools like this will be attended almost exclusively by kids of rich parents like Barack Obama. Remember this the next time the president gives a lecture on income inequality and fairness.

Republicans must go on the offensive on school choice. A quality education is the best anti-poverty program ever invented. This is the best path to reducing income inequality. Rich liberals would never condemn their kids to rotten and dangerous inner-city public schools. But they force these schools on the poor and minorities they pretend to care for. School choice, as Jack Kemp used to say, is the new civil rights issue in America.

Democrats are on the wrong side on this issue. They put unions ahead of kids. Let’s hope Republicans in Congress not only restore funding of this program but expand its budget so that every poor child in Washington, D.C., can get the education that Barack Obama’s daughters do.

 - Stephen Moore is chief economist at the Heritage Foundation and a Fox News Channel contributor.

About the Author

Stephen Moore Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Project for Economic Growth

Originally appeared in the Orange County Register