D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty called for continued federal funding for a program that permits underprivileged children to attend private school, breaking with the congressional leaders of his own Democratic Party who ended the initiative.
By Elizabeth Hillgrove and Kara Rowland
The Washington Times
“Political leaders can debate the merits of vouchers, but we should not disrupt the education of children who are presently enrolled in private schools through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Mr. Fenty said in his first public comment on the issue.
The remark, in a Wednesday night e-mail to The Washington Times, puts the mayor at odds with Democrats on Capitol Hill, who late last week circulated a document indicating that they have no plans to reconsider the program, which loses its funding next year in the $410 billion omnibus spending package.
“The committee does not anticipate reauthorizing the program,” a Democratic staffer on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in the document obtained by The Times.
A spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and the committee’s ranking member, accused Democrats of being disingenuous when they said during debate on the bill that they were open to reconsidering the program.
“Talk of hearings, assertions that no final decision had been made, were deceptive double-talk,” spokesman Frederick Hill said. “Democrats on the House committee that would have to reauthorize the program had already decided poor D.C. children shouldn’t be in private schools.”
Mr. Fenty now joins President Obama in arguing for allowing children now in the program to stay in it through graduation.
“The president has repeatedly said that school vouchers are not a long-term solution to our educational challenges, but in this instance believes that we should try to find a way to keep from disrupting the students currently enrolled in this program,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Thursday. “He looks forward to working with Congress to find a solution.”
The omnibus package calls for the program, which provides $12.1 million annually for about 1,700 city students, to end after the 2009-10 school year unless Congress and the D.C. Council reauthorize it.
President Bush started the program five years ago, the only federally funded voucher system in the country. It has since been a target for Democrats, who draw support from the teachers unions that oppose it.
Obama’s School Plan
By David Brooks
The New York Times
In his education speech this week, Barack Obama retold a by-now familiar story. When he was a boy, his mother would wake him up at 4:30 to tutor him for a few hours before he went off to school. When young Barry complained about getting up so early, his mother responded: “This is no picnic for me either, Buster.”
That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.
The reform vision Obama sketched out in his speech flows from that experience. The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).
We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.
In his speech, Obama actually put more emphasis on the other side of the equation: rigor. In this context, that means testing and accountability.
Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade. They can tell you which education schools produce good teachers and which do not.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has data showing that progress on tests between the third and eighth grades powerfully predicts high school graduation rates years later — a clear demonstration of the importance of these assessments.
The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.
As Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me, “We’ve seen a race to the bottom. States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure, and that’s unacceptable. We have to be fierce.”
Obama’s goal is to make sure results have consequences. He praises data sets that “tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not.” He also aims to reward states that use data to make decisions. He will build on a Bush program that gives states money for merit pay so long as they measure teachers based on real results. He will reward states that expand charter schools, which are drivers of innovation, so long as they use data to figure out which charters are working.
The administration also will give money to states like Massachusetts that have rigorous proficiency standards. The goal is to replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top, as states are compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money.
In short, Obama hopes to change incentives so districts do the effective and hard things instead of the easy and mediocre things. The question is whether he has the courage to follow through. Many doubt he does. They point to the way the president has already caved in on the D.C. vouchers case.
Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. The idea was to cause maximum suffering, and 58 Senators voted for it.
Obama has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this. But in the next weeks he’ll at least try to protect the kids now in the program. And more broadly, there’s reason for hope. Education is close to his heart. He has broken with liberal orthodoxy on school reform more than any other policy. He’s naturally inclined to be data driven. There’s reason to think that this week’s impressive speech will be followed by real and potentially historic action.