Perhaps Barack Obama should pay more attention to JFK and LBJ.

Obama Versus JFK (or Why the Administration is Wrong to Oppose Vouchers): Your editor (along with a good number of Dropout Nation‘s contributors) is plenty outraged over last month’s move by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek a halt to Louisiana’s school voucher program by restricting it from providing vouchers to children living in districts still under desegregation court orders. After all, it is intellectually incredible and morally indefensible to condemn poor and minority kids — especially those who share the same skin color as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — to schools and districts perpetuating educational neglect and malpractice.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngAt the same time, the fact that the Justice Department is pursuing such action is unsurprising. After all, the Obama Administration has shown through its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act that it will take actions that subject poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations — even as it talks about (and undertakes) worthy reforms that aid systemic reform. Coherent and congruent thinking about education policy is not what this administration’s is all about. When one considers the continued efforts of the administration to shut down the D.C. Opportunity voucher program (which it had succeeded in temporarily putting asunder during the first two years of President Barack Obama’s tenure), the decision by Obama and Holder to file suit against the Bayou State over vouchers is no surprise at all. Which is why Dropout Nation wasn’t surprised by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s profession yesterday on the Diane Rehm Show that he knew nothing about the action, and, in any case, wouldn’t weigh in on the matter.

Certainly the Obama Administration would like to argue that its opposition to vouchers have to do with concerns that taxpayer dollars are being used to finance tuition for children attending private and parochial schools, the latter of which engage in the kind of religious instruction that in the minds of progressives and centrist Democrats, would be considered a violation of the separation of church and state. But then it would have to explain its strong and principled support for expanding public charter schools, which are privately operated by nonprofit and corporate outfits and often engage in the kind of character and moral education — albeit without references to God — akin to that in Catholic schools. [By the way: American public education has long engaged in Calvinist and Unitarian-tinged civic religion, and these days, provides character education in a more agnostic form.]

Given the growing support for vouchers from civil rights-oriented reformers, from centrist Democrats such as Michelle Rhee, longtime liberals such as John Coons, black and Latino families who have benefited from the expansion of choice (and the ability to escape from failure mills) and even the august editorial page of the Washington Post, the Obama Administration also can’t argue that it is support is rooted in an appeal to its base. This especially true when you consider that the administration has willingly supported teacher quality reforms that have angered the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both of which still maintain influence (albeit declining each day) within Democratic Party ranks, and are among the biggest financiers of the party’s political campaigns.

So the Obama Administration can only appeal to the history of the Democratic Party to justify opposition to vouchers. But that won’t stand up either. For one, that would mean conveniently ignoring the likes of congressman and New York governor Hugh Carey  Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who as a policy wonk, political appointee, and U.S. Senator, argued strongly for vouchers as a way to providing all children with the high quality academic and moral education they need and deserve. It would also mean ignoring two predecessors of Obama who continue to cast long shadows on federal education policy: John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

During his tenure in Congress, Kennedy was actually one of the foremost supporters of providing federal aid to parochial schools. As a congressman in 1950, he proposed an amendment to a school construction bill that would allow for federal funds to be provided to Catholic and other parochial schools. By the time he took office in 1961, he was looking to craft successor legislation to the National Defense Education Act, which predecessor Dwight David Eisenhower passed in the last two years of his term in office. Driven as Eisenhower was by the Cold War and what would be a growing recognition of American public education’s inadequacy in providing children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — with what was considered at the time to be high-quality education, Kennedy looked to pass a law that would provide funding to districts. Privately, he was supportive of providing such funding to Catholic diocesan and other parochial schools. It made sense. At the time, the Roman Catholic Church operated 13,000 schools serving five million children, making it the de facto alternative to traditional districts as educational provider of choice. In southern states where Jim Crow segregation kept black children from accessing what was thought of to be better-quality schools serving whites, Catholic schools were a way out from racial bigotry that permeated Dixie society.

But Kennedy would never publicly support such a move. Why? Religious bigotry. For an America that was still gripped by the same nativist fears that the Pope to try to take over America (as well as lingering bigotry toward Americans of Irish and Italian descent), the very idea of federal support for Catholic schools was verboten. As it was, Kennedy’s own campaign for the presidency was a tough slog in part because of his own Irish heritage and status as a practicing Catholic. Proposing a federal education policy that would essentially create vouchers for children to attend Catholic schools was a bridge too far. So Kennedy publicly shied away from supporting federal funding for Catholic schools in order to get an education plan passed.

It didn’t work out. Kennedy’s unwillingness to back funding for Catholic schools led archbishops and Catholic groups to fight strongly against any new education legislation that didn’t include funding for private schools. As typical of Kennedy — who was more appeaser than a strong leader — he attempted to appease Catholic leaders by proclaiming the value of Catholic schools to American society even as he wouldn’t be as bold in supporting funding for them as he was during his days on Capitol Hill. The fears of segregationists who dominated the leadership in both houses of Congress would also complicate Kennedy’s efforts on the education front; they feared that Kennedy’s plan would exclude funding for segregated public schools, and more importantly, would be used by the administration to end desegregation altogether. Meanwhile Kennedy’s concerns on the domestic and foreign policy fronts — from settling a labor dispute between steelmakers and the unions who represented those in the rank-and-file, to Cold War battles with the Soviet Union in Europe and Asia (especially with the building of the Berlin Wall and what would become the Vietnam War), would consume the rest of his attention. It would take Johnson, playing on both his political savvy and the misplaced nostalgia over Kennedy’s tenure after his assassination in 1963, to actually make what became ESEA a reality. Realizing that there was no way an education bill could be passed without support from largely Catholic voters in northern states and the senators and representatives from Northern states who represented them, Johnson allowed for a version of what would become ESEA drafted by then-congressman Carey that included some federal funding for poor children attending Catholic schools. This helped ESEA win support from the National Catholic Welfare Conference and other groups. By realizing that the Constitution only prohibited imposition of religion by the federal government and not federal funding for Catholic schools, Johnson managed to strike a blow for legislation that can now be used to justify expansion of school choice. Half of the nation’s Catholic schools now receive Title 1 funding, according to Boston College Professor Joseph O’Keefe.

If Kennedy (privately) and Johnson (publicly) could see no problem with using taxpayer dollars for expanding educational opportunities for children, then Obama (who has already done so through charters) can see it too. It’s shameful that the president and his administration remains stuck in a mindset that even their fellow Democrats in the school reform movement are abandoning.

The Sophistry of Common Core Foes, Part MMM: Will Common Core Cause U.S. Education to Crumble? is the question the American Principles Project poses in the press release for an event it is convening next Monday on the campus of Notre Dame University. Which makes anyone with sense and knowledge about American public education wonder if it actually knows what it is talking about.

After all, how can anyone ignore the fact that 33 percent of America’s fourth graders read Below Basic (or, to put it bluntly, functionally illiterate) according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress? Or pay no mind to the low performance of the nation’s high school students on the most-recent editions of TIMSS and PIRLS, two of the three leading exams of international student achievement? Or give no attention to the data from researchers such as Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Balfanz about the fact that far too many kids are struggling even before they reach sixth grade. Or even the volumes of reports about the abysmal condition of American public education, including the Council on Foreign Relations report from last year or the grandaddy of them all, the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk released 30 years ago.

Considering that the school reform movement has been working for the past few decades to overhaul the low quality of teaching, curricula, and cultures that are the norm and not the exception within traditional districts, it is hard for any sensible person to say that American public education is any shape other than that of a broken-down Model T Ford. More importantly, no intellectually honest person can argue that Common Core reading and math standards, which have only begun to come online, will make education worse. If anything, especially in light of questions about the quality of math and reading curricula — including conclusions from the analysis of high school transcripts of high school graduates who took the 2005 NAEP that far too few them took algebra courses worthy of being called such — the standards can actually help push districts and other school operators to provide children with comprehensive college-preparatory classes they need and deserve.

Your editor would like to think that the American Principles Project and its chief anti-Common Core specialists, Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, are merely ignorant of these realities. In that case, it would be best for them and their colleagues to read Dropout Nation and learn more. But given that its event features the likes of Stanford University’s Bill Evers, Joy Pullmann of Heartland Institute’s School Reform News, and Pioneer Institute’s resident anti-Common Core advocates, Jamie Gass and Sandra Stotsky, all of whom know better, American Principles Project cannot feign lack of knowledge. So it, along with its allies, are merely engaging in intellectually disingenuous thinking that only the likes of Diane Ravitch can love.

Speaking of Common Core: Vote for the SXSW Proposed Panel on Common Core and Education Technology (Self-Promotion Dept.): Dropout Nation Your editor is teaming up with the legendary Gideon Stein (he of Lightsail Education and the Future is Now charter schools project launched by Green Dot founder Steve Barr), Joel Rose (who launched the New York City Department of Education’s School of One initiative) and Jessie Woolley-Wilson of Dreambox for a proposed panel at SXSW’s education festival on how education technology can support the implementation of Common Core standards. Learn more about the panel and vote for it to appear at the event this coming March. Thanks for your support.

Errata: What you should support to advance systemic reform.

  • For the past few years, the Black Star Project’s Saturday University program has helped kids in Chicago gain the knowledge they need to succeed in school and in life. This year, it will put on 20 Saturday Universities all throughout the Second City. Families can learn more about the Black Star Project Saturday University, either online or by calling (773) 285-9600. And school reformers and others looking to help all kids can volunteer by calling the same number and visiting the site. Do your part!
  • Meanwhile in DC, the Grassroots Education Project is also looking for reading tutors and other volunteers for its work at Harriet Tubman Elementary School and Walker-Jones Education Campus. As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the Grassroots Education Project has been doing powerful work in providing children with the literacy tutoring they need in order to stay on the path to high school and higher ed graduation. Be part of this important cause for children in the nation’s capital.
  • On Friday in New York City, go attend the screening of We the Parents, the new documentary that details the efforts of Parent Power activists such as Shirley Ford of Parent Revolution and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union. Learn more about show times and support this film.