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Home » CER in the News » Speak Up on D.C. Schools, Mr. President

Speak Up on D.C. Schools, Mr. President

by William McGurn
Wall Street Journal
October 5, 2010

That deafening roar you hear—that’s the sound of Barack Obama’s silence on the future of school reform in the District of Columbia. And if he doesn’t break it soon, he may become the first president in two decades to have left Washington’s children with fewer chances for a good school than when he started.

This week President Obama will be out campaigning on the differences between the Republicans and Democrats on education. The primary thrust of his argument—which he repeated yesterday—is that Republicans want to cut education spending. Which may be a harder sell coming on the heels of his admission last week on NBC’s “Today” show that “the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades even as results have gone down.”

This debate over education is now coming to a head in Washington. In the first months after he took office, Mr. Obama kept quiet when Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) killed off a popular voucher program that allowed low-income D.C. moms and dads to send their kids to the same kind of schools where the president sends his own daughters (Sidwell Friends). This was followed by the president’s silence last month during the D.C. Democratic primary, in which the mayor who appointed the district’s reform-minded schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, went down to defeat.

Even now, when Ms. Rhee’s fate—and that of D.C. school reform—hangs in the balance, Mr. Obama remains mute. This from the same president who shows no such shyness when interjecting himself into, say, a complaint about Boston police, a dispute over an Islamic Center in Manhattan, or the mass firing of teachers at a troubled high school in Central Falls, R.I. Why so reticent about an issue affecting the future of thousands of African-American children?

“No one in Washington has more political capital than Barack Obama,” says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington D.C., nonprofit that advocates for changes in public K-12 education. “All he has to do is to say two simple sentences. First, ‘I support anyone who gives D.C. parents more options and more accountability.’ Second, ‘We need to keep D.C. on the path of reform with a schools chancellor like Michelle Rhee.'”

For all his education rhetoric, Mr. Obama’s reluctance here has a long party pedigree. While D.C. reforms have been embraced and promoted by individual Democrats such as Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman and California’s Dianne Feinstein, the impetus for reform has come from the GOP. In fact, D.C. school reform didn’t really start until Republicans took control of the House in 1994.

The following year, the newly Republican Congress sent Bill Clinton a voucher proposal for D.C. It would eventually be dropped in the face of his veto threat (a threat he made good on three years later, on another D.C. voucher proposal). Nevertheless, in that first battle Republicans did succeed in getting through a provision for D.C. charter schools.

A few years later the pattern repeated itself. National Republican leaders again came together with local Democrats such as Mayor Anthony Williams and City Councilman Kevin Chavous, not to mention local advocates such as Virginia Walden-Ford of D.C. Parents for School Choice. Together they helped push a voucher bill through Congress. This time it went to the desk of a president who would sign it: George W. Bush. Building on this momentum, in 2007 a newly elected local Democrat, Mayor Adrian Fenty, named Ms. Rhee as schools chancellor.

Today it’s all in limbo. Ever since Ms. Rhee’s patron lost his primary, word is that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been working behind the scenes to ensure Ms. Rhee stays on as chancellor, or that she is replaced by someone with equal commitment to reform. The fact, however, is that whatever magic Mr. Duncan might perform “behind the scenes” is no match for what his boss might do by speaking publicly.

Surely the wind is at his back. In the past, Mr. Obama has himself spoken honestly about the obstacles to reform, including the close relationship between the teachers unions and his party. This past weekend, Mr. Chavous, now head of the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity, published an open letter in the New York Times saying it’s time for the president to walk the walk. Along with the recent release of “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” Davis Guggenheim’s superb new film on the children robbed of their dreams by the failing public school system, it all adds to the sense that the moment for Mr. Obama to make himself heard is now.

“All presidents have the bully pulpit,” says Mr. Chavous. “This president in particular has the power to change hearts and minds instantly.”

But will he?