The Obama administration’s refusal to embrace parental choice in education is difficult to understand given its health care stance and the overall public policy direction that Democrats have advocated and embraced for decades. The most recent example is the controversy over the access to contraception under Obamacare.
Initially, the administration asserted that a woman’s and family’s right to choose to use contraception trumped whatever objections religious affiliated employers had to its use. Churches themselves were exempt, but not hospitals they operate. These religious employers would have had to honor the family’s right to choose contraceptives and at zero cost for all their employees. The White House backed off somewhat from the directive in the face of an uproar, but instead ordered that insurance companies have to offer and pay for such coverage separately when the religiously affiliated organization opts not to offer it.
This recognition of the family’s rights on such a personal and potentially life changing decision as contraception oddly does not carry over to education, which in the 21st century is more life changing than ever. Education once was third behind a good work ethic and a strong back for many middle class jobs. Today, education is a must for a middle-class standard of living.
Most children we fail to educate today will live in or on the fringes of poverty with all the consequences that brings to them and to American society. The last 30 years alone have witnessed an enormous growth in the earnings differential between college- and high school-educated workers across the industrialized world. In the Great Recession, unemployment for those without a high school diploma doubled to 20 percent, but if one had a college degree the rate was about 5 percent. Even if you had only some college, your unemployment rate was just over 9 percent. Apart from the recession, lifetime earnings skyrocket as the level of post-secondary education increases. Sadly, we still haven’t figured out how to prevent 25-30 percent of students from dropping out before high school graduation or how to prepare the others adequately for post-secondary courses.
What we clearly know now from a series of gold standard research reports is that expanding choice does no harm and in fact shows considerable potential for benefits, both academically and for the empowered family who is frequently more connected to the school they have selected. What remains unclear is why the Obama administration is so opposed to expanding choice for families to include private schools.
The President defunded the successful Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program until Speaker Boehner insisted it be reinstated as part of the budget legislation last summer. Now the funds have been removed again from the Obama FY 2013 budget.
It’s clear Americans like choices. They insist on it at the grocery store, in their health care, in their housing, their automobiles—across the board in their lives. Yet when it comes to choosing the right school, the 85 percent or so of Americans in the traditional public school system are forced largely to give over a decision certainly as important to the family’s and individual’s well-being as that of contraception to a school district official who does not know them or their children. Charter schools are a great addition to the educational mix, but they do not and cannot address all the options families want and frankly deserve.
The limits on educational choice are a tragic anomaly in American life. They serve no public purpose. Improving the educational health of our children ought to trump any objections that come from the status quo forces. This is especially true when the evidence is overwhelming that expanding choice does no harm to our children.
The dependence of the Democratic Party on teacher union campaign contributions and support continues to have a deleterious effect on education policy choices that are being made. We Democrats need to continue to push our supporters in education to accept reform and we need to get on the right side of history.