Democratic education reformer speaks out for school choice


In 2004, President Bush and Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP). The program, which serves 1,700 low-income minority students in the nation’s capital, has been incredibly popular among parents and children alike. It has also been a major target for elimination by teacher unions and big-government politicians on Capitol Hill.

Education reform is critical to the future of our nation. Local and state control of programs and funding, and the elimination of the unconstitutional Department of Education would eliminate tens of billions of dollars from the federal budget while empowering individual and family freedom. Additionally, the cost of education itself would go down, as the number of federal scholarships (Pell Grants, etc.) and loans would disappear.

Michelle Rhee is the former Chancellor of the D.C. Public School System. In that position, she helped make the DCOSP the program it is today, despite efforts by President Obama and others on Capitol Hill to stop funding the program. Now, she has published a book called Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. A portion of the book has been adapted for an op-ed on, and in it are several Tea Party-minded reminders about public policy.

First, parents know better than bureaucrats what their kids need from the education system. From Rhee:

After my listening tour of families, and hearing so many parents plead for an immediate solution to their desire for a quality education, I came out in favor of the voucher program. People went nuts. Democrats chastised me for going against the party, but the most vocal detractors were my biggest supporters.

“Michelle, what are you doing?” one education reformer asked. “You are the first opportunity this city has had to fix the system. We believe in you and what you’re trying to do. But you have to give yourself a fighting chance! You need time and money to make your plan work. If during that time children continue fleeing the system on these vouchers, you’ll have less money to implement your reforms. You can’t do this to yourself!”

“Here’s the problem with your thinking,” I’d answer. “My job is not to preserve and defend a system that has been doing wrong by children and families. My job is to make sure that every child in this city attends an excellent school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a private school, or a traditional district school. As long as it’s serving kids well, I’m happy. And you should be, too.”

Second, public policy should be about people:

Here’s the question we Democrats need to ask ourselves: Are we beholden to the public school system at any cost, or are we beholden to the public school child at any cost? My loyalty and my duty will always be to the children.

Third, individual freedom should not be hampered by religious inclination. We have religious freedom in America – but that does not mean a qualified religious institution competing with a secular institution should not be able to participate in a publicly-funded program:

Most people in this country do not favor vouchers in education, because they don’t want public dollars going to private institutions or businesses. But the logic holds absolutely no water.

We have federal Pell grants that low-income students use all the time to attend private colleges. Pell grants aren’t limited to use at public universities. We have food stamps that low-income families redeem at nongovernment grocery stores. And let’s not forget about Medicare and Medicaid.

Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ’Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”

No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.

No op-ed is perfect, and there are two holes with Rhee’s analysis. First, in describing her “listening tour,” it appears that many parents in D.C. want schools to take full responsibility for the education their children receive. This ignores the critical importance of parents to a child’s educational and other developments, and gives too much power to the education bureaucracy.

Second, while loyalty to children with regards to education is the right way to go, money is less important than how money is used. Granted, Rhee’s op-ed was adapted from her book, so I’m sure she addresses this in the book, but the D.C. public school system was the most expensive in the nation only a few years ago.

Over the years, Rhee has come under major criticism for her efforts in D.C. In 2010, a Department of Education study found students in the DCOSP do approximately as well, or perhaps slightly better, in a number of measurable ways. Opponents jumped on the study – but they seem to have forgotten that in 2009 the program was between one-quarter and one-half as expensive as the average public education in D.C. In other words, even if the education is the same, the taxpayers are still getting a great benefit. And, again, the program is popular, with a 70% approval rating in 2010 by participants.

In 2012, the DCOSP was nearly cut out of the federal budget. Fortunately, Speaker Boehner managed to negotiate a deal to keep the program going. We’ll have to see if President Obama’s forthcoming budget proposal tries yet again to deny freedom of choice to hundreds of young, poor Americans in favor of his teacher union allies.