Playing Politics with School Vouchers; Will Obama Lead or Follow?

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We have yet to see much evidence of Sen. Barack Obama's oft-discussed willingness to buck the special interests and work with those across the aisle. Recent public plotting against the nation's first federal school-voucher program by some Democrats in Congress provides the presumptive presidential nominee with an opportunity to show his valor. A decision whether to speak up in support of the program's continuation can give voters an idea of whose interests Mr. Obama's acts on when pushed against the wall: his teachers-union funders or low-income kids stuck in rotten public schools.

The program in question offers scholarships to nearly 2,000 students which they can use to leave the infamously bad Washington D.C. public school system for a private alternative. More than 95 percent of students using a voucher are black or Hispanic, and on average they come from families with an annual income of about $18,000.

Unlike other school-choice policies, the D.C. voucher experiment is subject to federal oversight and approval. The Democratic legislative majority makes presidential leadership crucial to the program's future survival. Sen. John McCain's previous support for school choice leaves little doubt where he stands. Mr. Obama, whose support could prove decisive among his Democratic colleagues, has remained silent.

To be fair, Mr. Obama has never claimed to be a voucher advocate. But the "post-partisan candidate" has promised to keep an open mind. "If there was any argument for vouchers it was, all right, let's see if this experiment works and then if it does, whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids," the then-hopeful nominee told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board last February when asked about his stance on that city's voucher program.

Such evidence is now available for the D.C. voucher program. On Monday, researcher Patrick Wolf and his team revealed the findings of their evaluation of the program's effectiveness. Their two-year study follows a random assignment design, which is considered the "gold standard" of social science research.

Though not the slam-dunk that some voucher supporters might have hoped for, the results certainly don't warrant the program's termination. Students offered a voucher appear to have somewhat higher academic achievement in reading, though they have not made any real gains in math. Parents are more satisfied with their child's private school and report that it provides their children with a safer environment. Only future research following these students over a longer period of time will tell us the true impact of the policy. …