Howard Rich's Blog

December 4, 2008

America Needs Change Parents can Believe in

By Howie Rich

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Barack Obama isn’t the first (and he certainly won’t be the last) Washington politician to send his children to exclusive private schools.

In fact, Sidwell Friends – the elite private academy chosen by the Obamas for their two young daughters – was also selected by Bill and Hillary Clinton for their daughter, Chelsea, while they lived in the White House.

But you won’t hear me – or any other true educational choice advocate – condemning either family for selecting the educational environment that best fits the needs of their children.

That’s their right as parents.

In fact, in selecting this $29,000-a-year school, Michelle Obama specifically described it as “the best fit for what (our) daughters need now.”

Meanwhile in South Carolina (which includes eight counties with a median household income below what the Obamas will pay per child in tuition costs this coming year) one of the state’s top gubernatorial prospects, James E. Smith, also chooses to send his children to a prestigious private academy.

Again, that’s his choice – and based on South Carolina’s worst-in-the-nation graduation rate, it’s hard to fault him for it.

In Oregon, where the graduation rate is much higher, House Speaker Jeff Merkley and his wife recently attempted to enroll two of their children in a newly-formed charter school. In this case, it wasn’t that their public schools were all that bad, they simply wanted something better.

Yet when reporters first asked Speaker Merkley about his children’s applications, he denied having ever submitted them.

How come?

Well, as it turned out, Merkley had voted against Oregon’s charter school legislation just a few years earlier.

Likewise, South Carolina’s Rep. Smith has been one of the most vocal opponents of parental choice in South Carolina – including choice for those eight counties with household incomes below what the Obamas will pay to send just one of their children to private school this coming year.

And then there’s Obama himself, who is following in the footsteps of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and his Illinois colleague Jesse Jackson, Jr., in ardently opposing academic scholarships and tuition tax credits which in most cases add up to less than half what public schools are spending.

“We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them,” Obama says, a clever sound bite that ignores the billions in new taxpayer dollars we pour into public education year after year in an unsuccessful effort to do just that.

Sadly, politicians like Obama, the Clintons, Kennedy, Jackson, Smith and Merkley are hardly unique in availing themselves of the very choices they refuse to make more accessible to the vast majority of American parents.

According to a 2007 report by the Heritage Foundation, 37 percent of U.S. Representatives and 45 percent of U.S. Senators enroll their children in private schools – a rate four times higher than that of the general population.

Simply put, choice is a good thing – but only for those rich or powerful enough to enjoy it.
So what is Obama’s solution for the rest of America’s parents?

For all his talk of “change we need,” and “change we can believe in,” Obama’s plan is all too familiar – keep throwing more money into the same old failed bureaucracies while branding anyone who wants to empower parents as being “anti-public education.”

Yet as our nation falls further behind its industrialized peers in standardized test scores, we desperately need an education system focused on achieving results, not accommodating a status quo that has proven utterly incapable at adapting to a changing world.

More money and expensive new “accountability” measures have clearly failed to move us forward.

We must now provide change that parents can believe in, a process which begins, ironically, with providing them the same choices currently enjoyed by their leaders.

The author is Chairman of Americans for Limited Government.

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