The President’s Education Speech: Is This Change?

by Lindsey Burke

It’s a bit ironic that President Obama would criticize “a comfort with the status quo” in his highly anticipated education speech at the National Urban League. The Obama education agenda, after all, has continued to reward those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Case in point: Teachers’ unions have been allowed to set the high-water mark for reform in Race to the Top, the president’s $4.35 billion grant program. Over the past half century, the unions have been at the forefront of perpetuating the status quo in education. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars, gleaned — often unwillingly — from dues-paying members, to defeat attempts to implement such reforms as merit pay, alternative teacher certification, changes in tenure, and, of course, school choice. Yet this administration’s so-called “reform” initiative gave the unions a front-and-center seat at the table.

Race to the Top awards have heavily weighted union buy-in. Take Florida, a state that has gone further than any other to raise student achievement and to narrow achievement gaps between white and minority children. Florida’s RTTT grant application was rejected in phase one because, according to reviewers at the Department of Education, the Sunshine State didn’t have enough “stakeholder buy-in” and had only garnered 8 percent union support for their reform plan.

Unions have clearly been able to set the terms of the debate. How much reform can state leaders expect to achieve if they have to obtain union support?

After pitching Race to the Top, the president’s speech turned to educational opportunity:

As Arne [Duncan] says, our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.… I know life is tough for a lot of young people in this country, especially in some of the places the Urban League is making such a difference. At certain points in our lives, young black men and women may feel the sting of discrimination. They may feel trapped in a community where drugs, violence and unemployment are pervasive, where they are forced to wrestle with things no child should have to face. There are all kinds of reasons for our children to say, “No, I can’t.” But it’s our job to say to them, “Yes, you can.” Yes, you can overcome. Yes, you can persevere. Yes, you can make of your lives what you will.

His comments must ring hollow to D.C. families participating in the now-embattled D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income children in the District to attend a private school of their choice. Since the beginning of President Obama’s tenure, his administration has all but halted educational opportunity for some of the very children he references in his remarks. One in eight students in D.C. public schools reports being threatened with a deadly weapon. Less than a third are proficient in reading, and only 49 percent of D.C. children graduate.

On the other hand, students in the D.C. voucher program are safe and are thriving. D.C. voucher students read about 3.7 months ahead of their peers who remained in public school. Extrapolating that over the course of a child’s academic lifetime, that’s about two full years in additional reading achievement. Even more impressive, attainment has skyrocketed. Children who used a voucher to attend a private school had a 91 percent graduation rate.

Despite the success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, it’s being phased out by the Obama administration. Why? Politics, pure and simple. That certainly doesn’t send the message to D.C. children that “you can make of your lives what you will.”

These children and their families are doing everything they can to buck the status quo. The people with “resistance to change” are those with a vested interest in the status quo – the teachers’ unions and certain members of Congress.

Lindsey Burke is a policy analyst in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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