Obama, Who Ended D.C.’s Voucher Program, Talks About Improving Education for Children ‘Born in the Wrong Neighborhood’

By Fred Lucas | July 30, 2010 | 6:27 AM EDT

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration is phasing out a program that allows underprivileged children to get scholarships to expensive private schools in Washington, D.C., such as Sidwell Friends, the school the Obama girls attend, where tuition runs about $31,000 a  year.
Nevertheless, Obama on Thursday spoke about his “obligation to lift up every child” to help them achieve a quality education.
In addressing the National Urban League’s 100th Anniversary Convention, Obama touted his education reform initiative called “Race to the Top.” The $4.35 billion education initiative encourages states to reform their education laws and policies by making them compete for additional federal grant dollars.

Obama said it has been a success. But the National Urban League and even a major teachers' union have criticized "Race to the Top" for leaving minority students behind.

On Thursday, Obama said education reform is a top priority for his administration because the “status quo is morally inexcusable, it’s economically indefensible, and all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it.”

On a personal note, he invoked his days as a community organizer and a state senator, when he represented struggling communities with poor schools:
“I remember going to a school back in my organizing days and seeing children -- young children, maybe five or six -- eyes were brimming with hope, had such big dreams for the future,” the president said. “You’d ask them, what do you want to be when you grow up? They’d want to be a doctor; they’d want to be a lawyer.
“And then I remember the principal telling me that soon, all that would change,” Obama continued. “The hope would start fading from their eyes as they started to realize that maybe their dreams wouldn’t come to pass -- not because they weren’t smart enough, not because they weren’t talented enough, but because through a turn of fate they happened to be born in the wrong neighborhood. They became victims of low expectations, a community that was not supporting educational excellence.”
Obama called it heartbreaking and said it reinforced in him “a fundamental belief that we’ve got an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind.” The mostly black audience applauded.
Despite his words on Thursday, the Obama administration’s actions tell a different story.
The administration ended funding for the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. But, after protests from parents and school choice advocates, the administration eventually relented, agreeing to let children already receiving scholarships continue to do so until they graduate from high school.
In the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the administration proposes to cut funding for the program by $4 million, from $13 million to $9 million. (See earlier story)“The ‘Race to the Top’ is better than nothing,” said Clark Neily, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a legal group that advocates school choice.
Neily told CNSNews.com it’s a good thing that states have to demonstrate improvement to get federal education dollars. “Unless you put choice in the direct hands of parents, school systems are going to game the system by lowering the bar,” he said.
The Washington, D.C. voucher program began in 2004 to allow poor children to attend high-performing private schools. The program designates $7,500 scholarships to about 1,700 students to attend one of 55 private schools in D.C., including Sidwell Friends.
The private schools would accept the $7,500 payment to cover the much higher costs of tuition. In the case of Sidwell, tuition for “lower school” costs $31,069, while middle and upper school costs $32,069
The Education Department’s 2008 Digest of Education Statistics shows that for the 2005-2006 school year, $18,339 was spent per pupil per year for average daily attendance in the D.C. public schools – more than double what it costs for a child to attend a private school through the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Despite that spending, the public schools in the District are consistently ranked as some of the worst performing schools in the nation.