Friday, July 06, 2007

John Kirtley's response to Obama's speech

My friend John Kirtley, who has spearheaded the parental choice movement in Florida, emailed me the following regarding Obama's speech to the NEA.  As an Obama supporter, it pains me to say this, but I think John is right -- there are simply no good answers to his pointed questions.
(John, by the way, has been a big financial supporter of Democrats in Florida and nationwide (such as Cory Booker) that support parental choice for low-income parents.)
In fairness to Obama, I have no doubt that John could have written something similarly scathing about any of the other Democrats' speeches -- the problem here is not Obama, but the bankruptcy of my party on this issue.
Someday, I have to believe, some Democrat will come to the same realization that Bill Clinton did on welfare reform when he was an obscure Arkansas governor running 5th in the presidential primary polls: that taking on the entrenched status quo that owns the Democratic Party is not only morally right but politically brilliant -- and, like Clinton, ride the issue into the White House.
I'm not holding my breath for it to happen this Presidential cycle -- unless Bloomberg runs -- but it will happen!

Whitney, I know that you are a supporter of Obama. He is a truly inspirational and electrifying figure.  I know you can’t expect a Democrat to go to the NEA and commit political suicide. But I can’t help but feel great sadness and disappointment when I read these passages from his speech. Perhaps if he is elected he can provide a Nixon to China moment of parental choice for low-income children. But these passages below make me wonder.

“It’s a promise …. we expanded after World War II, when we sent over two million returning heroes to college on the GI Bill.”

The GI Bill is a voucher, used by returning servicemen and women to attend the public or private schools of their choice. They use it to attend faith-based universities; they even use it to attend seminaries and rabbinical schools. Why is he OK with dollars following students to all providers after children leave high school, but not before?

 “And even when America fell short of this ideal and forced Linda Brown to walk miles to a dilapidated Topeka school because of the color of her skin; even then, ordinary people marched and bled, they took to the streets”

Why do they take to the streets now? To demand the right to send their children to the school they choose, regardless of whether it is within a certain system. For evidence please see

“The ideal of a public education has always been at the heart of the American promise. It's why we are committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers.”

Is he committed to the idea of public education, or to a system? What is his definition of public education? Is it using an adequate amount of taxpayer dollars to educate children well, regardless of who is educating them? Or is his definition a closed system of schools that children cannot venture outside of? Miami Union Academy is a faith-based school in a poor Dade County neighborhood that graduates 99% of its kids and sends 95% to college. Its tuition is $4,000 per year. It is a faith-based school. Why does Obama not want a low-income single mom to be able to send her child to that school with taxpayer help? How will her doing so be a negative thing?

“We now live in a world where the most valuable skill you can sell is knowledge. Revolutions in technology and communication have created an entire economy of high-tech, high-wage jobs that can be located anywhere there's an internet connection. And today, a child in Philadelphia is not only competing for jobs with one in Boston, but thousands more in Bangalore and Beijing who are being educated longer and better than ever before. “

Does he think it’s wise in such a world to have a K-12 education system that is based on a planned economy model where children are assigned to a school based upon where they live?

“In the 21st century, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, and America is already in danger of falling behind. We now have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation.”

I wish he would have stated what those dropout rates actually are: about 30% overall and close to 50% for minority children. In Florida, only 38% of black males graduate from high school! It would be so powerful for him to deplore that situation given his own success. Is this a situation where we should be taking options for low income parents off the table?

 “the single most important factor in determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not who their parents are or how much money they have.”

No, the most important factor is how much money you have. Those with enough money move to a neighborhood with good public schools or pay for tuition for a private school. Only those without enough money have no choices. Hillary did the right thing for her daughter and sent her to a school that worked for her—luckily she lived in the only public housing in D.C. at the time that had school choice. Obama also sends his children to private school. How can he look that low-income single mom from Miami in the eye and say, “I know you are asking the taxpayers for less than half of what we spend in the public schools, but I just can’t let you send your kid to Miami Union. Even though they graduate all their kids, it’s not in the right system.

 “What we need is a historic commitment to America's teachers,”

No, what we need is a historic commitment to America’s children, particularly low-income children. We need to empower their parents to choose the best school for their kids. Do that, and the best teachers will be rewarded.

 “Let's do this by finally raising salaries across the board, and making it possible for professionals in other fields to become teachers, not through easy shortcuts”

Like Teach For America?

 “In the coming weeks, I'll be laying out the specific details of my plan to invest billions of new dollars into the teaching profession”

How will this help close the achievement gap if the structural issues aren’t addressed? Has his education advisors studied the experience of the Abbott Districts in New Jersey?

 “It also goes for parents. There is no policy or program that can substitute for a parent who is deeply involved in their child's education from day one”

How can you expect parents to be involved and engaged if they have no recourse when a school doesn’t work for their child? Does he truly wish to empower them? Give them the power to make a choice, and don’t restrict it. There are thousands of schools that are working in inner cities right now. Don’t tell these parents that they have to wait until a charter school comes to their neighborhood. By then it will be too late and their child will be yet another a statistic.


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