Obama's First Education Fight

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THE PLANK MARCH 5, 2009

Obama's First Education Fight

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has picked his first of what will probably be many fights with Congress over education. In an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, he said he supported continuing Washington, D.C.'s voucher program, a federal pilot project that gives poor students money to attend private schools. And the fight is now: This week the House is reviewing a plank in a new spending bill to essentially kill the program, which started when the GOP controlled Congress. Vouchers have never been popular with Democrats and teachers unions, not to mention D.C. pols, who see it as another instance of enforced federal experimentation on the District.

Duncan is actually trying to shoot the middle of the debate. He says he opposes vouchers--"I don't think vouchers ultimately are the answer ... We need to be more ambitious"--but in D.C.'s case he supports them, because the participating kids are already settled in schools. It's a pragmatic position, politically, but it's likely to boomerang on him. Any dramatic change to a school district is going to mean disrupting the lives of its students. 

Duncan's hidden logic is in the wording of his opposition to the program. It's not that he doesn't think they work, but that he doesn't think they are THE answer. But only ideologues think vouchers are THE answer; for most, like the District's chancellor Michelle Rhee, vouchers are just one tool among many. I'm guessing that this is actually Duncan's position, but that at this point he's too cautious to say it. But being too cautious is hardly the path to real reform.

--Clay Risen

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