Obama’s Choice, and Ours

Monday, April 20, 2009

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, have made a personal decision that is rich with policy ramifications: the choice of a school for their two daughters.

During the campaign, Obama said he supported charter schools, which are public schools free of some bureaucratic constraints, but that he opposed private school choice because it doesn’t work.

Turns out it does work for the Obamas, who determined that no public or charter school in the nation’s capital would be the “best fit” for their daughters. Instead, they chose Sidwell Friends, an exclusive private school that counts Chelsea Clinton among its graduates.

No one should begrudge the Obamas for choosing the best possible school for their children. But we should begrudge the president for vowing to deny such choices to low-income parents. As Annette Polly Williams, the Wisconsin state representative who gave birth to Milwaukee’s school choice program, put it, “The president shouldn’t be the only person who lives in public housing who gets to send his kids to private schools.”

School choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere provide an educational life preserver to children in failing schools whose families, unlike the Obamas, lack the financial resources to get their kids out. Studies show that such programs also improve poor-performing public schools by forcing competition for children and dollars.

Obama also charged during the campaign that school choice constitutes a “huge drain of resources out of the public schools.” By his own logic, Obama will drain between $200,000 and $400,000 from the public schools if he serves eight years in the White House. But as a parent, Obama makes his children, not the system, his first priority—as it should be.

One explanation offered for the Obamas’ school choice is security. But parents of lesser means have security concerns, too: namely, making sure their children come home from crime- and drug-infested schools alive and unhurt every day. Most of us don’t have such worries. For families who do, it is unconscionable to deny them a means to opt out.

Obama will decide the fate of the Washington, D.C., school voucher program, which offers private school choices for about 2,000 low-income children. The program is supported by Mayor Adrian Fenty, former mayor Anthony Williams, council member Marion Barry, the Washington Post, and past and current public school officials. Will Obama buck the teachers’ unions that have outsized influence over the national Democratic Party and do what’s best for the children? Or will he adopt a cynical “do as I say, not as I do” approach and destroy opportunities for thousands of schoolchildren?

Obama campaigned as the candidate of hope. By their school choice, the Obamas have given hope in abundance to their own daughters. Let’s hope the president does not snuff it out for countless others who need that hope desperately.