January 24 2011

IWF in the News: Broken Promises, Wasted Futures

Sabrina Schaeffer

This morning I joined "Fox and Friends" to talk about "Promises Kept and Promises Broken" since last year's State of the Union address. We hit a lot of the big-ticket issues - spending, taxation, healthcare reform - but there was another promise we didn't get to touch on: education. 

Considering this is School Choice Week, I was particularly interested in what promises the president made last January about K-12 education. When it comes to education, Obama said, "the idea here is simple. ... Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform - reform that raises student achievement."

I have to admit I was suspicious. Rewarding success? Isn't that what the DC Opportunity Scholarship program was - a successful alternative for D.C. students that resulted in higher student performance and increased graduation rates? But the president - with the help of Democrats in Congress like Sen. Richard Durbin (Ill.) - ended that program shortly after arriving in the White House.

Still, that was then, this is now. How did President Obama's promise to "reward success" hold up over this past year? Turns out, not so well.

Just this month, Detroit Public Schools announced they plan to spend $49 million in federal money (thanks to "the stimulus") to push more technology in the district, including the purchase and distribution of 40,000 new laptop computers for students.

The problem? This is a school district rife with academic failure. In fact, results from a U.S. Department of Education exam found that fourth- and eighth-graders at Detroit Public Schools placed the lowest reading scores among urban school districts in the country. The Nation's Report Card found Detroit fourth-graders reading at 73 percent below the national level, with only 22 percent of students meeting even basic reading requirements. Similarly, the eighth-graders are reading at 60 percent below the national average, with only 34 percent meeting basic requirements.

Of course, if the abysmal academic performance wasn't reason enough to withhold more federal funding, the district's financial problems should have been. Detroit Public Schools are all but bankrupt and under state receivership in order to help manage the district's finances.

As far as I can tell, this is the definition of "rewarding failure."

As a former speechwriter, I'm well aware that education is one of those seemingly innocuous issues you can throw into a big, "kitchen-sink" speech like the SOTU. Everyone loves the sound of investing more in education.If President Obama, however, really wanted to improve education in Detroit, he should have returned that money to Michigan taxpayers and given them an opportunity to consume education just like anything else - based on their individual needs and priorities.

Unfortunately, this broken promise is not just more wasted money - it's wasted futures.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is a senior fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and managing partner of Evolving Strategies.

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