Education: A Golden Age

“The education sector’s structure and policies will change more in the next 3 years than they changed in the last 2,500 years”

Washington, DC, vouchers, Democrats putting children last, and Obama

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It will be interesting to see if Obama weighs in on this. I have no doubt that he understands exactly what’s going on here and, personally, would have no problem extending a program that gives 2,000 poor black children exit visa from hell (and hell truly is a good description of most DC public schools — hence the rise of charter schools to take 30% market share), but vouchers, sadly, remain the third rail in Democratic politics and this tiny program is such a big issue for the teachers unions, so I suspect Obama will sit this one out.

There’s always a chance, however, now that he’s won the primary, that he’s looking for an issue through which he can demonstrate that he’s a “New Democrat” and not beholden to Democratic Party special interests. If so, it would be hard to find a more entrenched special interest than the teachers unions, and this issue would be a great way to support the remarkable reforms taking place in our nation’s capital under two DEMOCRATS, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee.”

Democrats in Congress have finally found a federal program they want to eliminate. And wouldn’t you know, it’s one that actually works and helps thousands of poor children.

We’re speaking of the four-year-old Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides vouchers to about 2,000 low-income children so they can attend religious or other private schools. The budget for the experimental program is $18 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Education spends every hour and a half.

This fight has nothing to do with saving money. But it has a lot to do with election-year politics. Kevin Chavous, the former D.C. City Council member who sits on the oversight board of the scholarship program, says, “” More than 90% of the families express high satisfaction with the program, according to researchers at Georgetown University.

Many of the parents we interviewed describe the vouchers as a “Godsend” or a “lifeline” for their sons and daughters. “Most of the politicians have choices on where to send their kids to school,” says William Rush, Jr., who has two boys in the program. “Why do they want to take our choices away?”

Good question. These are families in heavily Democratic neighborhoods. More than 80% of the recipients are black and most of the rest Hispanic. Their average income is about $23,000 a year. But the teachers unions have put out the word to Congress that they want all vouchers for private schools that compete with their monopoly system shut down.

This explains why that self-styled champion of children’s causes, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Congressional delegate from the District of Columbia, is leading the charge to kill the program. Ms. Norton contends that vouchers undermine support and funding for public schools. But the $18 million allocated to the program does not come out of the District school budget; Congress appropriates extra money for the vouchers.

The $7,500 voucher is a bargain for taxpayers because it costs the public schools about 50% more, or $13,000 a year, to educate a child in the public schools. And we use the word “educate” advisedly because D.C. schools are among the worst in the nation. In 2007, D.C. public schools ranked last in math scores and second-to-last in reading scores for all urban public school systems on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Opponents claim there is no evidence that the D.C. scholarship program is raising academic achievement. The only study so far, funded by the federal Department of Education, found positive but “not statistically significant” improvements in reading and math scores after the first year. But education experts agree it takes a few years for results to start showing up. In other places that have vouchers, such as Milwaukee and Florida, test scores show notable improvement. A new study on charter schools in Los Angeles County finds big academic gains when families have expanded choices for educating their kids.

If the D.C. program continues for another few years, we will be able to learn more about the impact of vouchers on educational outcomes. The reason unions want to shut the program down immediately isn’t because they’re afraid it will fail. They’re afraid it will succeed, and show that there is a genuine alternative to the national scandal that are most inner-city public schools. That’s why former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and current Mayor Adrian Fenty, both Democrats, support the program.

“Hopefully,” says Mr. Chavis, “Congress will focus on the kids, not the politics here.” Barack Obama might call that the audacity of hope, if he finally showed the nerve to break with the unions on at least one issue and support these poor D.C. students.


2008/06/11 - Posted by | Policy


  1. Districts don’t have choices in terms of what curriculum they can purchase – California put Singapore on their list of approved curriculum. It takes time to introduce new curriculum and you probably won’t see measurable results for at least five years.

    How do communities purchase Singapore textbooks with state funds? That’s how businesses could provide assistance to public education. If districts had the option of purchasing the best curriculum so that they could be competitive, then I’d be more supportive of efforts to reform education. But presently, reformers are inventing any excuse for low achievement in order to push their private agendas and that includes the supporters of ‘fuzzy’ math, which can’t seem to find one stitch of authentic, independently-verified research for why districts should be adopting their curriculum. I’d like every state to include Singapore in its list of acceptable curriculum.

    1. Huge savings in curriculum and staff development.
    2. Excellent public support – you can’t argue with district officials when they’ve adopted the world’s best curriculum.
    3. Meaningful curriculum that adds value to a student’s education. This will result in fewer dropouts and higher achievement. More students will enroll in math and science. Stopping the current corporate exodus from America.
    4. Meaningful support programs, teachers are no longer teaching to the academic mean – they are teaching world class standards.

    Why won’t school reformers do what’s right for communities? Why are there two standards and not one?

    I’d like to see one curriculum that everyone uses, that’s fair. Currently, our system doesn’t allow that.

    I tried teaching in a public school in Washington and it was terrible. I’ve never seen so many children drop out of school. I’ve never seen so many children not pass high school and it wasn’t unions, parents, teachers, or kids – it was the curriculum and the textbooks…

    Words have value, only when they have meaning. Singapore is a great achievement and Americans will overwhelmingly accept it when they see how good it really is. I’ve got a beef with science textbooks too!

    Comment by Al Rode | 2008/06/18 | Reply

  2. Here’s the math and what I know –

    Presently, an 18 year old in Washington with three years of Core plus knows less than a 13 year old in California using College Prepatory Math who knows what a 11 year old learns in Singapore.

    Few people realize that Singapore textbooks were written in English for Singapore children, for whom English is a second language.

    This was also my experience with Challenging Mathematics used in Quebec with non-English speaking children. The textbooks were originally developed for students learning English who didn’t have a textbook to learn with. When they were finally ready to be mainstreamed they wanted the same textbooks only written in English. Fascinating history and I think parents should take more interest, since I agree this could be a golden age for children, except we need to throw away some really dumb, unintelligible textbooks, like Core plus, Connected Math, and Everyday Math…

    Textbooks have to speak to children or why bother. Reform or no reform. Adopt Singapore. How was California able to adopt Singapore and not Singapore standards? Wouldn’t that put every other ‘exemplary’ textbook out of alignment?

    College preparatory Math is what I taught with and it was great, until I saw what a tremendous improvement there was with Singapore. Obama I hope you read this.

    Comment by Al Rode | 2008/06/18 | Reply

  3. Singapore: Al – have you been in touch with Magde Goldman,, key Singapore math promoter/facilitator?
    Cheers, Erik

    Comment by Erik Syring | 2008/06/18 | Reply

  4. I suppose I should think about that. I took a sabbatical and I’ve been waging my own private war for two years, so here I am. I read philosophy, run my company, raise my kids, and I’ve been considering a doctorate but I don’t know where or what. I know curriculum and I enjoy mswlogo/starlogo, but that’s about it. Thanks and Cheers!

    Comment by Al Rode | 2008/06/18 | Reply

  5. Dear Erik,
    You’ve got a great blog. I’m starting a school choice blog for Texas with the goal of grassroots organization.
    Howdy, Texans! Come visit me.
    Bob Schoolfield in Austin

    Comment by letschooseschools | 2008/06/19 | Reply

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