Vouching For Obama

Back in February, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, Senator Obama was asked his views on private school choice. He responded, “if there was any argument for vouchers it was ‘Let’s see if the experiment works.’ And if it does, whatever my preconception, you do what’s best for kids.” Within days, the Obama campaign was backing away from his comment, and touting his long criticism of private school choice. In the months that followed he has criticized Senator McCain for offering “the same tired rhetoric about vouchers.”

Having apparently lost his open mind on the issue, Senator Obama has fallen back on the traditional political platform that equates higher spending with leadership and progress. In a major education speech in Dayton, Ohio, Obama opened with a grim assessment of the status quo: our high school students have some of the lowest math and science scores, and among the highest dropout rates, in the industrialized world. His solution? “Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space. That’s the kind of leadership we must show today.” Obama is still more specific on this subject in his fact sheet on “21st century threats”:

The trouble is, the National Defense Education Act was an expensive failure. Nationally, representative science scores from the time are hard to come by, but the mathematics performance of 11th graders fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to “national norm” studies conducted by the College Board. Scores had still not returned to pre-NDEA levels a decade after that.

Graph One

This decline was not the result of changes in the percentage of students taking the test, and things did not improve in the ensuing decades. The mathematics performance of 17-year-olds has been stagnant since the early 1970s, while science scores have actually fallen slightly over the same period. That’s according to the Long Term Trends portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which began around 1970.

Graph Two

Senator Obama clearly has lofty and laudable goals for American education - such as giving all children access to high-quality schools with challenging curricula, diminishing achievement gaps by race and socio-economic status, and “spurring innovation.” But he advocates programs that have proven incapable of accomplishing these goals.

Barack Obama celebrates the federal Head Start early-education law and supports a somewhat softened version of No Child Left Behind. Both of these laws were created, in their initial forms, in 1965. Their main goal was to reduce academic achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Since 1965, federal spending on these and other K-12 programs has totaled $1.85 trillion - nearly two thousand billion dollars. Has it done any good?

It is tragic to see Senator Obama clinging to the failed approaches of the past…

Achievement gaps between the kids of college graduates and the kids of high school dropouts haven’t changed much. At the end of high school, reading and science gaps are about the same today as they were $2 trillion ago. The gap in math has shrunk by barely 1 percent. And while the black/white achievement gap at the end of high school shrank during the early- to mid-1980s, it began to increase slightly thereafter. Since the early 1990s, it has stagnated, despite a more than doubling in inflation-adjusted federal K-12 spending over that period.

It is tragic to see Senator Obama clinging to the failed approaches of the past, and ironic that his education platform so closely resembles that of President Bush. For, despite his protestations to the contrary, Obama’s calls for massive spending increases on existing programs look like nothing so much as a third Bush term. Under President Clinton, annual federal spending on K-12 education rose by $9 billion. It rose by $19 billion under Bush.

Both McCain and Obama have suggested they would preserve President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Law with a few nips and tucks. But Obama has actually poked fun at those who would scrap the law, and faulted McCain for not promising to spend even more on it.

NCLB’s supporters like to note that some scores for fourth and eighth graders have risen slightly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in recent years. What they and the media fail to mention is that U.S. performance on international tests has stagnated or fallen in mathematics, science and reading over the same period. We’ve dropped to 18th place in reading, 21st in science, and 25th in math.

Though the performance of federal education programs has been deeply disappointing, there is copious evidence available on what actually does work. I recently published a global review of the research comparing market-like private-school systems to public-school monopolies. The overwhelming majority of scientific studies favors education markets on everything from student achievement and school efficiency to parental satisfaction and the physical condition of school buildings. Senator Obama, you once expressed openness to empirical evidence on this issue. An open mind, like a vote, is a terrible thing to lose.

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’sCenter for Educational Freedom and author of the recent study “Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence”. He also blogs at Cato [at]