Why President Obama Won’t Save Urban Catholic Schools

In today’s Washington Post, Checker Finn and Andy Smarick ask President Obama to save the nation’s vanishing urban Catholic schools. Their commentary does a good job of explaining why he might want to do that: Catholic schools are typically bastions of excellence in otherwise educationally blighted inner-city areas. Economist Derek Neal has shown that black children attending these schools are 26 percentage points more likely to finish high school, and twice as likely to graduate from college, than similar students attending urban public schools.

Finn and Smarick also suggest ways that president Obama could bring the option of private schooling, including Catholic schools, within reach of all families – supporting the spread of state tax credit and scholarship programs around the country, for instance.

What Finn and Smarick don’t do is explain why the president will continue to ignore the evidence and their plea, instead letting the educational prospects of inner-city children erode even further. Three possible explanations occur to me:

  • The president is unfamiliar with the evidence on the superiority of private and especially urban Catholic schools
  • He thinks that his administration will succeed in dramatically improving public schools all over the country, despite the failure of all his predecessors’ efforts
  • He thinks that making it easier for poor parents to choose private schools would hurt him politically

Personally, I don’t believe the first explanation. I can believe the second, but wish I couldn’t (wouldn’t it be nice to have a realist in the Oval Office)? And I can certainly believe the third, but if so, the president simply hasn’t done the political math.

Coming out strongly in favor of public and private school choice at the state level would win Barack Obama substantial new support from independent and moderate swing voters who seem to have been drifting away from him, while costing him very little from his base. The NEA might reduce its level of support, but they’re not going to flip and back Republicans. And few if any Democratic voters would switch party allegiance over a Democratic president’s desire to help poor kids with the most effective policies.