Brotherly Betrayal

Brotherly Betrayal

Predominantly minority D.C school kids are not sharing NEA leader’s glee over President Obama’s budget.

Last week, President Obama released his administration’s budget for fiscal year 2015 and National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel was ecstatic. He was especially pleased that Obama plans to move “towards ending the era of austerity.” (Austerity? I must have been absent that day.)

But most of Van Roekel’s cheerleading concerned itself with the president’s “smart investments in education.” The union leader blathered on about early childhood education, maintaining that,

We also welcome the president’s plan to make high-quality early childhood education universally accessible to all 4-year olds. Research shows that children who attend high-quality prekindergarten programs are less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education, and have greater opportunity to succeed in life. Moreover, such programs bring enormous economic benefits and can pay for themselves in as little as one year and, over time, save the states and the federal government billions of dollars.

Actually, the vast majority of the research shows something very different. The United States, in fact, has a near 50-year history of funding early-childhood programs in the form of Head Start. And in December 2012, the federal government released the final section of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year Great Society-era program, with very disappointing results. According to the report’s executive summary:

“here was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.” The 2012 report only reinforced some disappointing findings from the study’s second phase, which showed that any gains “had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.”

Perhaps the height of irony was reached when Van Roekel said, “President Obama’s budget rightly reflects our belief that a strong economy starts with a public education system that “creates opportunity and excellence for all.”

Well maybe not “for all.” The budget that has Van Roekel swooning leaves no money for the successful and popular Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP). The teacher union boss dislikes the program because vouchers are used to enroll kids in private schools which are not unionized. In fact, in March of 2009, Van Roekel wrote a threatening letter to every Democratic member of Congress,

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress.

Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.

Three months later, Congress, then controlled by Democrats, dutifully voted to kill DCOSP. The program was eventually revived when Republicans retook control of the House in 2010, but because of Obama’s hard line, there has been an ongoing struggle to keep it funded.

The voucher program came up in an interview with Bill O’Reilly last month. The president claimed that the means-tested voucher programs in Milwaukee and D.C, “didn’t actually make that much of a difference,” and added, “As a general proposition, vouchers have not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities.”

It would appear that the president has chosen to remain uninformed, as there is a wealth of available data that contradict his assertions. In Education Next, Arkansas researcher and professor Patrick Wolf meticulously refutes Obama’s misinformation:

A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered private-school choice by winning a random lottery graduated from high school at the rate of 82 percent, compared with 70 percent for the control group. The impact of actually using an Opportunity Scholarship was to increase the likelihood of graduation by 21 percentage points, from 70 percent to 91 percent. Over 90 percent of the participants in the study were African American, and almost all of the rest were Latino American. (Emphasis added.)

A similarly rigorous experimental study of the impact of privately funded partial-tuition K–12 scholarships on college-enrollment rates was conducted by Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution. They followed a large group of low-income elementary students in New York City for over a decade after half of them were awarded private-school scholarships by lottery, while the other half were randomly assigned to the control group. They determined that the impact of using a private-school scholarship was to raise the college enrollment rate for African Americans in the study from 36 percent to 45 percent, a gain of 9 percentage points that represented nearly a 25 percent improvement over the control-group rate. As with the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program evaluation, President Obama’s very own Department of Education assigned this study its highest rating for scientific rigor.

Finally, I worked with a large team of researchers to evaluate the effect of the nation’s oldest and largest urban school-voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, on student educational attainment in the form of high-school graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence. Over two-thirds of the students in our study were African American, and almost all the rest were Latino American. We found that low-income students who used a voucher to enroll in a private school in ninth grade subsequently graduated from high school, enrolled in a four-year college, and persisted in college at rates that were 4–7 percentage points higher than statistically similar Milwaukee students who started in public schools in ninth grade. These higher rates of educational attainment due to the Milwaukee voucher program represent improvements of 15–20 percent over the rates obtained by the comparison group of public-school students—nearly as large as those for the African American students in the New York City study.

Given the results of these three studies, one which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Education and two which were recognized with the Department’s highest award for rigor, we might expect President Obama to receive a swift response regarding his call for the federal government to search for programs that boost educational outcomes for African American men. The U.S. Department of Education need not search far and wide for such initiatives: they have already found one. Research shows that private-school choice through vouchers or scholarships is one of our nation’s most effective dropout-prevention programs for African Americans….

It’s important to note that not only do vouchers work for kids, they also provide relief for the taxpayer. Whereas it costs about $30,000 to educate a child in D.C. public schools, a DCOSP scholarship comes in at just $8,000 for a K-8 student and $12,000 for a high school student.

Several education reform groups weighed in on the presidents attempt to kill DCOSP with justifiable disappointment and anger. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) press release was typical,

“The Nation’s Capital has one of the most successful and cutting edge, choice-based education structures in the country,” said BAEO President, Ken Campbell. “BAEO is disheartened to see the White House’s unwillingness to continue its investment in a proven parental choice program like the DC Opportunity Scholarship program.”

According to the last federal evaluation of OSP in 2010, 91 percent of children who used their D.C. opportunity scholarships graduated from high school – 21 percent more than those who sought but did not receive a scholarship and 30 percent higher than D.C. public school graduation rates.

“When we find programs and new approaches to education ecosystems that work, we need to do all we can to invest in those approaches for the children and parents who need them,” said Campbell. “The sad reality is that once again we cannot count on the President to support low-income parents who simply want the right to be able to make choices about where and how their children are educated….”

Obama’s aversion to vouchers is especially ironic as he recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a five year $200 million charitable initiative whose goal is to address the many disparities in outcomes for black men, including large gaps with white men in high-school graduation rates, college enrollment and completion rates, lifetime earnings, longevity, and the likelihood of incarceration.

So on the one hand, he is trying to promote educational opportunity for poor African-Americans by getting non-profits to buy into his “brother’s keeper” initiative. But then he turns around and defunds a successful voucher program which does exactly what his non-profit aims to do.

Just what is the reason for his contradictory stance?

All eyes point to some brothers being more equal than others – the ones that don’t ruffle union feathers go to the head of Mr. Obama’s class and the rest are left on their own to continue to suffer in some of the worst – and most expensive – schools in the country.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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