Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dems No Friends to Children Who Use Vouchers, or Charter Schools

It's high time someone called the Dems on their committment to education reform. Two examples are school vouchers and charter schools. Both have been successful, and both are overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats. The WSJ has a few interesting pieces on these programs, and how the Dems are trying to kill them, regardless of their real benefit to the children that use them.

James Taranto's Best of the Web Today column cites Obama's defense of his opposition to vouchers, from an ABC News interview, and William McGurn's Main Street column cites Elanor Holmes Norton promising to cut off funding to the DC voucher program.

And on the same day that he was extolling the need to shake up the "status quo" in education, Obama also defended his opposition to school vouchers.

"We don't have enough slots for every child to go into a parochial school or a private school. And what you would see is a huge drain of resources out of the public schools," Obama said.

McCain advocates giving every parent a voucher to essentially choose which school they'd like to send their child. Obama, whose two daughters attend private school, said that idea would crush the public school system entirely.

"But what I don't want to do is to see a diminished commitment to the public schools to the point where all we have are the hardest-to-teach kids with the least involved parents with the most disabilities in the public schools," he said. "That's going to make things worse, and we're going to lose the commitment to public schools that I think have been so important to building this country."

Mr. Taranto's piece does a good job explaining Sen. Obama's politics on this one, but I will cite one flaw in the senator's argument: Most voucher programs offer students less than half of what the school district spends per pupil, and one measure (I forget where, but it was defeated) would not have changed the school budget at all, taking the voucher money from the general revenue stream.

Mr. McGurn's piece shows that there are some cracks in the Democratic ranks, but not Rep. Holmes Norton, or Sen. Obama:

Barack and Michelle Obama send their children to an upscale private school. When asked about it during last year's YouTube debate, Sen. Obama responded that it was "the best option" for his children.

Several hundred low-income parents in our nation's capital have also sent their children to private and parochial schools, with the help of a federal program that provides Opportunity Scholarships. Like Mr. and Mrs. Obama, most of these parents are African-American. And like Mr. and Mrs. Obama, they too believe the schools they've chosen represent the "best option" for their children.

Now these parents have a question for Mr. Obama. Is Mr. Change-You-Can-Believe-In going to let his fellow Democrats take away the one change that is working for them?

Just a few days ago, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.'s congressional delegate) told the Washington Post that "the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program." Today that program will come under the congressional spotlight, when a House subcommittee takes up the annual appropriations bill for the District of Columbia that includes funding for Opportunity Scholarships for the 2009-10 school year. If Mrs. Norton and her allies in the teachers unions have their way, hundreds of African-American children with these scholarships will be forced back into one of the most miserable public school systems in the United States.

Just how rotten are the D.C. public schools? In a recent survey by Education Week, the D.C. public schools ranked fourth from the bottom in terms of graduation rates. Test scores for basics like math and reading are also near the bottom. It's not for lack of money: A recent U.S. Census Bureau report says the district school spending clocks in at more than $13,400 per child -- third highest in the nation. It takes a lot of money to run a school system as lousy as D.C.'s.

This dismal performance helps explain why so many have been willing to cross the usual political and ideological lines to try to give the district's kids a better shot at a decent education. Opportunity Scholarships have been endorsed by both the Washington Post and Washington Times. They have the support of the Republican president as well as the current and past Democratic mayors -- Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams.

Even some of Mr. Obama's Democratic colleagues -- e.g., California's Dianne Feinstein -- have said that D.C. should be allowed to give the program a chance. In contrast, Mr. Obama's silence is thundering across the district.

The third piece, New York's Novel Way to Kill Charter Schools, by Amy H. Friedman and Peter Murphy, details the roadblocks that bureaucrats and the liberal NY judiciary are throwing up to charter schools, through "prevailing wage" laws. The only problem is, the law creating charter schools exempts them from prevailing wage laws.

Recently, Tapestry (Tapestry Charter School in central Buffalo) won approval to add high school grades, and this is where the trouble started. To accommodate these new grades as well as serve the other students, the school decided to build a new building. It expected to pay about $8.5 million.

But last autumn, as a sop to labor unions, Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith ordered charter schools to adhere to state "prevailing wage" requirements, which mandate paying union wages for construction projects and which typically add 30% or more to the cost of a project. In Tapestry's case, it would add more than $1.5 million, putting the school's building expansion plans on hold.

Since their inception, charter schools had been exempt from this state law which, like its federal counterpart, the Davis-Bacon Act, applies to most public-works projects. Last month, however, state trial judge Michael Lynch upheld the new mandate, erroneously applying labor law to charter schools beyond anything intended by the legislature or precedent. The case is on appeal and will likely be overturned, but that could take years.

"Critics say there aren't enough charter high schools, but this latest hit makes it near impossible to afford to build one," Joy Pepper, Tapestry's co-founder and director, said. "How can it be good public policy for the state to raise the cost of school buildings when we get no capital money to begin with? It's the students they're hurting."

This ruling is an egregious example of the withering autonomy of charter schools. Charters successfully educate students on 70% of the funding spent by district school competitors. But the state's education bureaucracy, legislature and now the courts are all piling on regulatory burdens.

Sen. Obama purports to support charter schools. How far does his committment go? Does he support their exemption from local and federal prevailing wage laws? No word so far, but this might be a good question for someone to ask him.


aml said...

two comments:

1. check the academic lit on school construction and prevailing wages: the general consensus is there is no statistically significant cost difference

2. recent research on charter schools does not show them to be more successful once a set of rigorous methodological controls are instituted.

the point: conservative buggaboos generally don't stand up well to reality

Chris Leavitt said...

Actually, it's the "research" that doesn't stand up to reality, ami. My girlfriend's daughter was assaulted at two different public schools before she switched to a private school. There are routinely three to five times more applicants for charters or vouchers than are available. Here in NYC, the public schools are very dangerous, and not conducive to learning whatsoever. Most suburban public schools are good, but NYC's (and DC's) system is a dismal failure.