Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Weak on the Real Civil Rights Issue

President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.

In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.

By treating federal education funds as the equivalent of vouchers that would be transferred to any school a child attends — be it public, charter or private — Romney is opening the door to a national re-examination of school choice measures that could revolutionize the educational system. Many states currently allow education funds to follow students, especially on items that are required by all schools, such as standard text books or busing. But the rigid opposition of both the unions and liberal ideologues has served as an impassable obstacle to changing the system so as to recognize the principle that all schools that serve the children of the nation, including those that are private or religious, are in effect public schools. That would mean the local as well as federal education funding should be distributed to all accredited schools rather than just those with the public label.

Doing so would advance the cause of education. It would create the competitive pressure for excellence that has often been lacking in the public system.

This is a critical issue for all Americans but even more so for minorities and the poor. While the wealthy have the ability to choose the best schools for their kids, those without the same resources are stuck in failed public schools where children don’t have much of a chance. The president played a prominent role in ending a successful experiment in school choice in the District of Columbia that allowed poor children to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School (where his own two daughters go) rather than a Washington public school. The glaring hypocrisy of his position that effectively closes out a quality option for the people he claims to represent is one that ought not to be forgotten.

Though the movement of federal education funds is more of a symbolic move than anything else, Romney has still thrown down the gauntlet to Obama on an issue where it is the Republican and not the president who is defending the interests of minorities and the poor. If this is to be an election fought on the question of equality, Romney has found a good place to stand his ground.