I’m voting for Barack Obama but I disagree with his opposition to school vouchers for low-income families. (I don’t blame Obama for playing it safe on education or moving to the center on other issues for the general election. The guy wants to win.) In his recent speech to the AFT, he said (prepared remarks):
Now, I’ve been a proponent of public school choice throughout my career. I applaud AFT for your leadership in representing charter school teachers and support staff all across this country, and for even operating your own charters in New York. Because we know well-designed public charter schools have a lot to offer, and I’ve actually helped pass legislation to expand them. But what I do oppose is using public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.
Yesterday’s AP article describes John McCain’s reaction: McCain depicts Obama as too close to teacher’s union and against school choice for the poor.
Strib editorial writer Lori Sturdevant did a piece in late June on former state legislator and Humphrey Institute professor John Brandl titled: The professor of policy: ‘What’s your agenda for Minnesota?’ We need more people like John Brandl answering that question.
It was 25 years ago this year that he began talking up vouchers to low-income families, to allow them to choose private as well as public schools for their children. The idea met fierce opposition and went nowhere. In the years since, the achievement gap between rich and poor children has widened.
“More than a whole generation of poor kids have been lost,” he said. “I’m struck at how horrified we are [of his voucher idea], struck to the point of wondering whether there isn’t a certain bigotry behind it. That may be too strong a word, but it shows how strongly I feel about this. We’ve got to be trying things different from what we’ve been trying for those kids.”
In a commentary for the Strib last fall titled How to give kids a proven head start; Research suggests letting families pick from publicly funded (but not necessarily government-run) options, Brandl wrote:
… the deepest source of inspiration for most people is not government but family or religion. We should consider the possibility that some such supportive cultures exist in institutions other than the public schools. For example, most (but not all) research finds that low-income blacks who attend Catholic schools graduate from high school in significantly larger numbers than do those from public schools. The Catholic schools accomplish their results at considerably lower cost. Perhaps for some children religion creates the supportive community they need.
For some children, overcoming the untoward consequences of street culture and unsupportive family life might very well be beyond the powers of government. Some people — teachers, as well as students and parents — are buoyed by government, inspired even, but very many are not.
There is an opportunity here for a grand accommodation of the political left and right. The accommodation would publicly fund early childhood education and other government programs whose benefits exceed their costs — but in ways that would leave the poor free to use those funds at nongovernmental institutions, including religious schools.
Earlier this week, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the skills gap in a piece titled The Biggest Issue: America’s stagnation in educational progress threatens the country’s long-term economic and sociological prospects. He wrote:
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.
I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.
Interestingly, he mentions Obama’s support for early childhood education and takes a whack at John McCain:
Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.