Obama the populist?
From his State of the Union to follow-up speeches in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, Barack Obama is playing the populist on issues ranging from the minimum wage to unemployment benefits to retirement savings. He sides rhetorically with the little guy, victimized by big forces and big institutions. Yet, when it comes to education, the president junks his populist façade and openly embraces bigness: big government education systems, big education special interests, and big national education standards and testing.
The president touts improvements in the public-school graduation rate, but he prefers to ignore research showing that children who attend private schools as part of school-choice programs graduate at much higher rates than students who remain in regular public schools. Worse, he has used the big legal weight of the federal government to try to crush local school-choice programs that help some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.
In 2013, President Obama unleashed his legal attack dog, Attorney General Eric Holder, to stop Louisiana’s school-choice program, which gives scholarships to low-income children in failing public schools so they may attend private schools. Holder and the Justice Department went to court claiming the choice program threatened racial integration in schools, but a University of Arkansas study found that the Louisiana choice program actually increased integration in the state’s public and private schools. Late in the year, the administration decided to abandon its effort to get an injunction against the choice program, but is still seeking a federal review process of the program.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal termed the Obama administration’s lawsuit as “absurd” and said that the Justice Department “has no authority to end equal opportunity of education for Louisiana children.” Yet, Obama has spent his presidency trying to end equal opportunity for many children.
Early in his presidency, Obama tried to pull the plug on the Washington, DC school-choice program, which gives scholarships to K-12 students to attend private schools. Research has shown the effectiveness of the choice program, including a 2013 study that found that scholarship students graduated from private high schools at a higher rate than similar public-school students. Despite the opportunity it affords Washington’s mostly low-income minority students, only the steadfast support of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for the choice program has prevented the president from zeroing out funding for the program.
Obama’s penchant for big government in education is especially prominent in his repeated calls for federally financed preschool for many of the nation’s four-year-olds. The expansion of preschool would involve only public preschool, which would grow the size of the already leviathan government-school system. Expanded government preschool would come with federally supported standards, plus teacher pay and credential requirements sure to please Obama’s big teacher-union allies.
Finally, Obama continues to heap praise on his Race to the Top program, which strong-armed states into adopting the national Common Core education standards. These national standards have begat national testing and will promote a national curriculum. In reaction, a grassroots revolt of parents and teachers from across the political spectrum is spreading from coast to coast. States which had agreed to the national standards and testing are now backing down in the face of this revolt of the little guys.
In his recent speech in Waukesha, Wisconsin following his state of the union, Barack Obama said that the theme of his presidency is: “Restoring opportunity to every single person.” Yet, in education, he has worked to disempower individual Americans by fighting school choice programs, supporting big government preschool, and pushing national standards and testing that reduce parents’ influence over what happens in their children’s classroom. Rather than a populist friend of the little guy, President Obama more resembles an education version of Louis XIV.
Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.