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Obama and D.C. Public Schools: Rhetoric vs. Reality


As part of NBC’s week-long series on education, President Obama sat down with Matt Lauer on The Today Show for an interview on education. An audience member asked whether his daughters could receive the same high-quality education at a D.C. public school that they currently enjoy at their elite private school, Sidwell Friends. Obama replied, “I’ll be blunt with you. The answer’s ‘No’ right now.” And, no doubt unintentionally, the president went on to deliver a beautiful thesis on the necessity of school choice: 

I’ll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is: For a mom or a dad who are working hard but don’t have a bunch of connections, don’t have a choice in terms of where they live, they should be getting the same quality education as anybody else, and they don’t have that yet.

“Given the position” of the thousands of low-income D.C. children who have watched this president stand by as Congress phases out the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, that remark must have stung. For D.C. families unable to “maneuver” their way into a private school and instead assigned to a failing public school based on where they live in the District, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers of up to $7,500 to low-income children to attend a private school of their choice, has been a lifeline out of the unsafe and underperforming D.C. public-school system.

The president may invoke the language of school choice, but the reality is that last spring, 216 children in the nation’s capital had scholarships wrenched from their hands by the Department of Education, in some cases just days after receiving what was likely a life-changing letter of acceptance into the D.C. voucher program. The families of those children will certainly not be fooled by Obama’s newfound affinity for school choice.

Perhaps the president is feeling pressure to adopt reform language because of the attention being paid to the new documentary Waiting for Superman, which charges education unions with the poor state of American education. But the plight of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program falls squarely with certain members of Congress and the Obama administration, which has continually acquiesced to union demands.

These unions are, by a long shot, the largest contributors to members of Congress. The two major education unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), make 95 percent of their political contributions to Democrats. And with a budget of more than $355 million, the NEA spends more on campaign contributions than ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Walmart, and the AFL-CIO combined.

Which helps explain the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do mentality demonstrated by certain members of Congress and the administration when it comes to school choice. Forty-four percent of members of the 111th Congress have at one point sent a child to private school. While no one would ever begrudge a congress or the president the right to make the best possible education decisions for their children, if all the members of Congress who exercised school choice for their own children had chosen to preserve school choice for D.C. children, their educational futures would not be in jeopardy.

As long as the Obama administration continues to let unions set the high mark for reform, as was the case with the Race to the Top program, it will be difficult for families nationwide to gain access to a quality school. If the president wants to legitimize his school-choice rhetoric, he’ll need to start by standing up to education unions and standing for school choice in D.C.

— Lindsey Burke is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.