Barak Obama: Strong on Charters, Open-Minded on Vouchers (Politics 2004)

Who knew that putative U.S. Senator Barak Obama (D-IL) was such a strong supporter of charter schools, and "open-minded" on vouchers, even as both types of proposal are under increasing fire from most Democrats and many educators? And does it really matter?

Some of the basics of Obama's positions on education are in an early October newspaper article -- Keyes, Obama discuss charter school benefits Quad City Times (via Eduwonk). This collection of Obama's education accomplishments is also helpful: Obama on Education (Ontheissues.org). Another site, called Obama Truth Squad, questions the value and substance of many of Obama's claims on education.

In the recent debates, Obama appeared to oppose vouchers even as he takes heat from Keyes for sending his kids to a private school run by the University of Chicago. Said Keyes: "I do not see the day when every American family is going to be employed by the University of Chicago so they, too, can have a choice. I think we had better get there a little sooner than that." Obama gets defensive in Illinois debate (CNN.com)

But Obama appears to go much farther in a 2003 cable TV interview with Jeff Berkowitz that is posted on Eric Zorn's website. First, he states his fundamental support for charters, saying, "I think that we do have to innovate and experiment to encourage competition in the school systems." As noted by Eduwonk, this is likely a surprise to many.

Then, he discusses his willingness to discuss vouchers if they will help kids: "I am not close minded on this issue so I think everybody should go into this with the basic attitude that the bottom line is--how are we providing the most effective education for students at every grade level and every economic strata, and if we are doing that, then we shouldn't be didactic or ideological about how to best deliver that."

While it will come as a surprise to many of his Democratic supporters, Obama's position on vouchers is pragmatic. There are already at least three publicly funded voucher programs around the nation, along with scores of scholarship programs. The federal housing and higher education systems are in essence voucher programs. And for several years the U.S. Senate has come closer and closer to approving a federally funded pilot program to test out vouchers on a small scale at the elementary and secondary level.

If such a thing happens, it sounds like Obama will support it. (So too might Kerry.) And if he does, the world will not end. Public education will not wither and die. Nor will voucher schools do dramatically better than public schools serving the same population of kids.


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