Obama Wrong on Education

An innovative and popular school voucher program funded with federal dollars meets with improved student outcomes in Washington, DC. Remind me why Democrats oppose it?


If you aren’t familiar with the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, educate yourself, and quickly. It’s just one of the key ways in which presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney demonstrates common sense leadership.

OSP is the first school voucher program in the United States funded by federal tax dollars. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003 and allowed to expire in 2009 by President Barack Obama, OSP provides scholarships to low-income students in Washington, DC so they may attend more effective private schools. 

Here are the facts: OSP produces a 91 percent high school graduation rate for its students, while DC public schools graduate only 70 percent. According to minority leaders, OSP achieves this success at half the per-pupil cost. Twenty eight percent of DC public schools—some among the weakest in the nation—changed their own programs as a result of OSP.

By any measure, OSP is a screaming success. Why? Parent choice, smart decisions and tough-love funding.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Connecticut’s own Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman reintroduced funding for the program in 2011’s SOAR Act, which Obama signed under pressure during last summer’s nasty budget fight.

The 2013 federal budget does not include additional funding for the program, frustrating political representation from both sides of the aisle, minority leaders, parents, students and Washington, DC –area education administrators and volunteers. Boehner, for his part, is unlikely to agree to any new budget deal that doesn’t include funding for the innovative DC program.

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney strongly supports the program and points to it in his white paper “A Chance for Every Child” as a model for what a successful national voucher program would look like. 

The Obama administration claims that there is enough leftover money in the program to fund its existing participants through the end of high school but refuses to open the funding for new students. His—and union leaders’—rationale? They want better schools for all students, not just the voucher-earning elite (sic). And the way to get it is by increasing funding for public schools.

Yet certainly every leader, parent and student desires “better” schools. America spends more on public education than almost every country in the world. Yet our students are in the middle of the pack testing-wise, proving, once again, that throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it. It just increases waste.

Voucher program success isn’t limited to OSP. Other states that introduced school choice programs report similar progress. Florida, Wisconsin and Louisiana voucher policies result in well-documented higher graduation rates, achievement levels and parent satisfaction.

The Department of Education weighed in on the matter in 2010 and observed that OSP students achieved “similar” math and reading scores but acknowledged that OSP students were much more likely to graduate from high school. 

Big deal? Yeah, it is – students who don’t graduate from high school are far more likely to wind up living in poverty, according to the Brookings Institution. Students who graduate, work full time and wait until age 21 to marry only have a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty. Students who don’t do all three risk an astonishing 76 percent chance.

Predictably, the National Education Association—one of President Obama’s biggest supporters—opposes OSP. In fact, according to “A Chance for Every Child,” the NEA diverts $10 per member to the President’s reelection fund, proving Obama’s promise to “fund what works in education, regardless of ideology” weak at best and disingenuous at worst. 

This isn’t the first time that Washington, DC public schools have been used as a Petri dish of experimental education. Years ago, controversial former DC schools’ chancellor Michelle Rhee implemented a pay-for-performance remuneration system for teachers that garnered widespread union suspicion.

Rhee initially offered teachers the choice of earning up to $140,000 in compensation in exchange for giving up tenure or a smaller increase but with retained tenure. While the union didn’t agree, they eventually negotiated $20,000 to $30,000 pay raises with additional incentives based on performance.

Rhee resigned under political pressure in 2010 and founded StudentsFirst, a nonprofit education reform organization that counts eliminating tenure programs among its chief goals. 

In other words, compete, work smarter, perform better, earn more money—the time-tested equation of success and independence that most in this country acknowledge as rational.

I'd be happier paying highly qualified teachers much higher salaries provided their students earn better outcomes (a la Michelle Rhee's plan), as opposed to guaranteeing job security for a few underperforming professionals in what many consider the most important job in our communities. Won't we attract our best and brightest academic stars to the teaching profession this way? 

And union leaders wonder why their organizations have bad reputations.

Leon Karvelis May 31, 2012 at 12:45 PM
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) opposed renewal of the legislation for this program because it was ineffectual in producing any meaningful improvement in reading or math outcomes versus comparable public school programs. Furthermore, NYSBA cited deficiencies in ancillary services offered participating students, as well as exposure to non-credentialed students, Federal tuition vouchers cashed of behalf of participating students by schools which normally do not charge tuition, and other program abuses. The rate of student graduation produced by this program versus competing public schools hints of social promotion of participants since there exists no compelling academic advantage. Pulling scarce money out of the languishing inner city school systems is an inherently illogical approach. Taxpayers are owed accountability by public school boards and administrators. They should not be asked to subsidize for-profit school systems or pay twice for the same services. Notwithstanding this blatantly political commercial, such simplistic "solutions" do little to achieve the bottom line objectives of providing improved educational outcomes.
Lisa Bigelow May 31, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Dear Leon, Thank you for reading and taking the time to provide a thoughtful and reasoned reply (even though we disagree). It's more than just the taxpayers who are owed accountability, however. Our kids are owed accountability, too. As the chart I linked to in the piece demonstrates, our rapid increase in public education funding has not significantly improved student outcomes in terms of international assessment (a hot topic in education). And I would call a 21 percent increase in graduation rate most effective and not at all simplistic, as the statistics reported by Brookings indicate. Plus, parents love it -- the program is popular -- why eliminate what works based on the questionable practice of funding ineffective bureaucracy? For the time being, we will have to agree to disagree.
Susanne Krivit May 31, 2012 at 08:19 PM
My general objections to vouchers are (1) private schools are allowed to choose their own students. Since private schools can screen for the best students, and for students that "fit the mold" of the student body they want to recruit, lower achieving students (who are more much likely to be poor and disadvantaged) have little chance of being accepted at private schools that want academically superior student bodies. (2) Many vouchers are used for religious private schools where religious teaching is part of the schooling of the students. (3) I attended private schools because my parents found it necessary to remove me from a racially and economically diverse environment. Although at the time I was more comfortable with “my own kind”, in hindsight and with the bigger picture in mind, I think we lose as a society when certain classes or ethnic groups are segregated from others. Vouchers inevitably lead to segregation.


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