Commentary

Teacher Unions vs. Poor Kids

The “education president” remained silent when his congressional Democrats essentially killed the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in the city where he now lives and works.

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 to eliminate the $7,500 annual scholarships for these poor children after the next school year.

A key executioner in the Senate of the OSP was Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat. I have written admiringly of Durbin’s concern for human rights abroad. But what about education rights for minority children in the nation’s capital?

Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute (where I am a senior fellow) supplied the answer when he wrote: “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 major part of that base. Among those demanding that Congress kill the voucher scholarship program was the largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Two of the kids affected by the action, Sarah and James Parker, attend Washington’s prestigious Sidwell Friends School. Their scholarships will end with the next school year. The classmates they’ll be leaving will include Sasha and Malia Obama. The Obama children, of course, do not need voucher money to avoid Washington D.C.’s failing and sometimes dangerous public schools.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, 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 … .” President Obama, he added, “has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this.”

Doesn’t Obama at least have something to say publicly to those children and their parents when his own Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opposed the congressional shutdown of Opportunity Scholarships?

Said Duncan (New York Post, March 6): “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.”

Duncan suggests that donors provide financial assistance through graduation to those kids stripped of their Opportunity Scholarships. Perhaps our “education president,” from his continuing royalties from the sale of his books such as “The Audacity of Hope,” might help out.

One of the recipients of the Opportunity Scholarships, teenager Carlos Battle (VoicesOfSchoolChoice.org) said that in a D.C. public school she’d “have to think more about protecting myself than about learning.”

As for the Sidwell Friends School, its headmaster, Bruce Stewart, told the Wall Street Journal that the school has welcomed the OSP students. He said that when parents get more educational choices for their children, their kids and the whole community benefit.

Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, offered 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 Obama that question.

In a March 2 editorial, the Washington Post — not a conservative newspaper —summed up the Congressional Democrats’ scholarship shutdown in these words: “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?”

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 the libertarian Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.