BY CHARLIE SPIERING
January 11-17, 2009 Issue
WASHINGTON — School choice advocates are cautiously optimistic on the eve of the Obama administration, after lengthy campaign rhetoric in favor of reforming education.
President-elect Barack Obama selected Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system, as secretary of education.
Duncan’s reputation is that of an education reformer who has increased the number of charter schools in Chicago and introduced a form of merit pay for teachers.
“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book; it’s the cause of his life,” said Obama during his press conference to introduce Duncan. “He’s not beholden to any one ideology.”
Andrew Campanella, communications director for the Alliance for School Choice, noted that the selection shows that Obama wants to embrace reform in education, but he added that the organization is watching for further appointments.
“Education reform is not just done by one person,” he said.
But advocates for school choice and supporters of government-issued school vouchers and tax credit scholarships, aware of the changed environment following Obama’s election and strengthened Democratic congressional majorities, are concerned. During the campaign, Obama often voiced opposition to the notion, and he earned the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that has long campaigned against the idea of school vouchers.
Vouchers have long been touted as a solution to improve education — but also as a choice for parents to use taxpayer funds to send their children to a school suited to their needs. But during an appearance at the National Press Club in November, the newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, singled out the union’s opposition to the idea of vouchers.
“With the exception of vouchers, which siphon scarce resources from public schools, no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers,” she stated, while signaling a willingness to work with the new administration on reform.
But Campanella hopes the Obama administration will have an open mind when it comes to school choice, even if it doesn’t support vouchers. “There are a lot of different forms of school choice that legislators can choose from, and there are a lot of different options that meet the interests of each state,” he said.
After the presidential election, the Alliance for School Choice spearheaded an aggressive campaign to recruit 10,000 new activists to promote school choice and launched LetParentsChoose.org. The organization reached its goal in just four weeks and plans to expand its membership.
One of the top issues for school choice advocates will be the future of the D.C. Opportunity scholarship program. The program offers scholarships to low-income families in Washington, D.C., to attend a school of their choice. It serves more than 1,700 boys and girls who attend a wide variety of private and parochial schools.
Although the program passed Congress by a one-vote margin in 2003, it has gradually earned the support of Washington residents and local leaders, including Mayor Adrian Fenty and School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The program has also earned national attention and was specifically mentioned in the third and final presidential debate as a voucher success story.
However, with a Democratic majority in Congress, the future of the program is uncertain. Supporters of the program say that two studies that will be released this year regarding the success of the program will be critical in any decision to renew it.
But supporters insist that it will be difficult to dismantle the program after so many D.C. parents and children have benefited from it.
Tiffany Dunston, the 2008 valedictorian of Archbishop Carroll High School, attended the school that her family otherwise would not have been able to afford because of the program.
“I know if my scholarship had stopped halfway through, my family would have had a hard time paying for Carroll,” Dunston told National Review in July. “I just hope the scholarship continues.”
Most of the families in the scholarship program choose Catholic schools partly because they are the largest provider of education outside of the public school system. Last year, about 1,100 students in the program attended Catholic schools.
Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, noted that although many families are not Catholic, they are very pleased with the environment of Catholic schools.
“On the parents’ side, I think they choose our schools because they are looking for a values-based environment where their children will be challenged with a rigorous program, where they know their children will be held accountable and the teachers will be held accountable,” she said.
The Obamas’ Choice
Other parents in the program choose top private schools within the District, including Sidwell Friends School, the Obama family’s choice for their own daughters.
Sidwell Friends School is the same school that educates Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s grandchildren, and it was also the Clintons’ school of choice for their daughter, Chelsea.
“We are thankful that the Obamas made a good decision for their family, and we know that all parents want the same decision and choices for their own family,” said Campanella. “Our fight is to allow parents to make that choice that President Obama did.”
He added that he is optimistic that both President Obama and congressional Democrats will have an open mind regarding the future of the program.
But Weitzel-O’Neil admits that she is naturally concerned about the program’s future.
“It would be foolish for Congress to turn their back on the citizens and leadership of the District of Columbia who work so hard to allow this program to flourish and grow,” she stated.
Over the years, she said, vouchers have been touted by supporters as a method for educational reform, but that distracts political leaders from the most important issue: parents’ choice for their children.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the word ‘voucher’ has become a word that is viewed negatively,” she said. “It’s about providing every person in this country with the civil right, no matter their income, to choose the school that best suits their children and their family.”
Charlie Spiering is based in Washington, D.C.