- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

President Obama’s huge stimulus bill includes about $100 billion for education. And he insists his criteria for supporting reforms is not “whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”

Applauding, Randi Weingarten, powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers (1.4 million members), calls Mr. Obama the “education president.” However, when congressional Democrats recently doomed the Opportunity Scholarship Program for poor children in the District, the education president didn’t say a word.

Of the 1,700 students, starting in kindergarten, in this private-school voucher program, 90 percent are black and 9 percent are Hispanic. First the House and then the Senate inserted into the $410 billion omnibus spending bill language that will eliminate the $7,500 annual scholarships for these poor children after the next school year. It could only be reauthorized by the same Democratic-controlled Congress and the anti-voucher D.C. Council. Fat chance!

A key OSP executioner in the Senate was Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. I have written admiringly of Mr. Durbin’s concern for human rights abroad and his trenchant criticism of the CIA’s rendition-to-torture history. How about education rights in the nation’s capital?

Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, supplies the answer. (I am a senior fellow, specializing in civil liberties and education at Cato.) Mr. Coulson wrote in the Feb. 26 New York Post:

“Because they saw it as a threat to their political power, Democrats in Washington appear willing to extinguish the dreams of a few thousand poor kids to protect their political base.” Teachers’ unions are a vital part of that base, many of whose members fear competition. Not all of them. Ms. Weingarten, who is also head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, has started UFT charter schools in that state. But, like Mr. Obama, she is silent about stripping these OSP children of their alternatives. And the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, urged Congress to kill the D.C. program.

Two of these children, Sarah and James Parker, attend Washington’s prestigious Sidwell Friends School. At the end of the next school year and the end of their scholarships, among the classmates they’ll be leaving are Sasha and Malia Obama - who, of course, do not need voucher money.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted March 19, the congressional Democrats “even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the [voucher] program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends. … Obama has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this.”

Doesn’t Mr. Obama at least have something to say publicly to those children and their parents - especially when his own education secretary, Arne Duncan (enthusiastically appointed by Mr. Obama), disagrees with the congressional Democrats shutting down these Opportunity Scholarships?

The March 6 New York Post quoted Mr. Duncan: “I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning. I think those kids need to stay in their school.” Even if the program - as is quite certain - is not reauthorized after the next school year, Mr. Duncan suggests that donors concerned with education provide financial aid to those children through graduations.

Perhaps our education president, from his continuing royalties from the sale of his books, such as “The Audacity of Hope,” might help out. I suspect Ms. Weingarten would not object.

Says one of the recipients of the Opportunity Scholarships, teenager Carlos Battle (Voices-OfSchoolChoice.org): “If I was in the public school, I’d have to think more about protecting myself than about learning.”

Sidwell Friends School’s headmaster, Bruce Stewart, told William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal (reprinted in the March 4 New York Post) that the school has welcomed the OSP students, pointing out that when parents get more educational choices for their children, this benefits not only the children who are admitted but also the community.

In that New York Post article, “O’s dilemma: School kids vs. his fellow Democrats,” Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, has an excellent suggestion for members of the White House press corps: “I’d like to see a reporter stand up at one of those nationally televised press conferences and ask President Obama what he thinks about what his own party is doing to keep two innocent kids from attending the same school where he sends his?”

I wish Jay Leno had thought to ask Mr. Obama that question.

In a March 2 editorial, The Washington Post, not a conservative newspaper, says the debate about this vanishing opportunity for poor children “isn’t about facts. It’s about politics and the stranglehold the teachers unions have on the Democratic Party. Why else has so much time and effort gone into trying to kill off what, in the grand scheme of government spending, is a tiny program?”

If you agree, Mr. Obama, maybe you can help get the Opportunity Scholarship Program reauthorized after the next school year. Why not? The Democrats in Congress may listen to you.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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