Obama On Vouchers,"Intolerable" Status Quo, Replicating Charter Success

Warning: This post will use the "V-word" so if that is a problem for you, this may be a good time to go get your nails done or get that massage or something.

"You do what's right for the kids." -- Barack Obama. Read on...

So The Obamanator has taken his "Yes We Can" tour to Favreville, or as some maps still insist on calling it, Wisconsin. And he decides to sit down with the editorial board from my old stomping/scribbling ground, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And the editors, who know how to take a local issue and use it to squeeze some substance out of a guy like The Obamanator, decide to ask him about Milwaukee's groundbreaking private school voucher program. (In framing the question, one editor notes the political contours of the debate, i.e. it is a program that is very popular with low-income parents but, uh, not so much with the teachers union, whose members earn too much to qualify for a voucher. OK, the editor didn't mention that last part but my fingers couldn't help moving around on the keyboard.)

Because I used to be completely immersed in writing about the politics of vouchers in Milwaukee, I have studied pretty closely over the last 18-years as politicians have swung through Brewtown and offered their thoughts on the program. I watched Bill Clinton do the NEA Two-Step Backtrack after sending Democratic Assemblywoman Annette "Polly" Williams a letter congratulating her on her leadership with the original voucher law for Milwaukee in 1990. (He fretted in the letter that the "traditional Democratic party establishment" hadn't given her more encouragement.)

I watched Democratic candidates like Al Gore pander to the NEA by voicing steadfast oppostion to vouchers, only to see him concede later that if he was a parent of a child in the kind of non-functioning public schools we're talking about, then hell, yeah, he'd be a voucher user.

And just as bad, I watched Republican candidates gush with support for vouchers without any sort of nod to the complexities that attach themselves to a program that is obviously loaded with them - i.e. what exactly do we do with the public school system once we let people vote with their feet, especially since history has proven in Milwaukee that a vast number of parents who choose schools for their kids do in fact choose public schools. (Also, I watched them pretend they would fight for poor parents even though, in hindsight, the only fights they were really imagining were overseas.) 

So when I watched the 6-minute video of Obama's answer to the question, I was struck by something. In the long history of the "voucher soundbite" from politicians, Obama may have provided one of the most interesting answers I've ever heard.   

Granted, talking about the "V-word" as a Democrat can be problematic, especially when you are still running in some primaries and the teachers union can karate chop you at a most inconvenient time in your political career. Even at DFER we have people all over the map on their feelings about vouchers. Our official stance is along the lines of "We agree 100% that vouchers are a controversial topic."

So what did Obama say? He is skeptical of using private schools to solve the "intolerable" status quo problem because he worried that vouchers woulnd't generate the kind of supply of high-quality schools we will need. (A somewhat valid concern, I think.) But, and this is the interesting part, he said if studies end up showing that children are benefiting from vouchers, he wouldn't allow his skepticism to stand in the way of doing something to help them.

"You do what works for the kids," Obama said.

I am pretty sure that was what former Washington Post editor Ben Bradley would call a "Holy Shit Moment." He didn't lock the door, like our candidates usually do. He didn't declare anything a success without any evidence to back it up. He actually approached the topic with.... an open mind!

A couple of very quick thoughts:

-- The Obamanator will be able to look at the baseline results of a major longitudinal study of Milwaukee's private school choice program later this month. But there is a long trail of studies which show positive effects from school choice.  Sliced one way, because kids using vouchers in Milwaukee graduate at a significantly higher rate than Milwaukee Public School students, had MPS been able to match the voucher rate it would have graduated 14% additional students in the last four years. A lot more info on the previous research can be found here.

Private school choice is indeed a controversial topic. But our tendency as Democrats to scream Nyet! before we even poke around a bit not only takes us out of an important debate about educating our young people, it alienates us as a party from hundreds of thousands of parents who simply want a better education for their kids and can't understand why the rest of us are so willing to take possible solutions off the table.

I think that backdrop actually makes Obama's answer somewhat remarkable - if the results are convincing, and it helps children, it probably ought to be something we are at least looking at.

-- His other remarks in the video about the state of public education and charter schools are also encouraging.  "I think the status quo is intolerable," he said. That is a crucial starting point for any discussions about what to do about it.

Anything that works should be taken to scale and replicated, he said.

Now we're talking...