Question: "In your speech today, you said you wanted to make sure that every child gets the best possible education. Milwaukee's public schools are similar to those of many other cities -- they suffer many of the same problems of school systems in big cities. But Milwaukee has also been a pioneer in offering school choices, including a voucher system that many poor families like and the teachers' union opposes. What do you think of Milwaukee's school choice system and can it, and should it, be a model for the rest of the nation?"
Sen. Obama's answer: "Well, I have to admit that I have been a strong champion of charter schools as a way of fostering competition within the public school system. I have been a skeptic of school vouchers because my view has been that you are not going to generate the supply of high-quality schools to meet the demand. Instead, what you're going to get is a few schools that cream the kids that are easiest to teach and nobody's really interested in the enormously difficult task of teaching the special ed kid or the extremely impoverished kid. And so you end up with further stratification within the schools in the inner city without any real net improvement. So I've been skeptical of the school voucher program.
When Milwaukee initiated the school voucher plan, I thought that at least there was an experiment that would allow us to use that as a test case. You have a control group, you ahve a test case and then you evaluate what happened.
I was stunned to find out from Gov. Doyle that there's no assessment process after, what is it, 7, 8, 10 years. There are no studies to figure out whether or not it worked. If there was any argument for vouchers, it was 'Alright, let's see if this experiment works.' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids. It turns out we have no data to support the notion that kids are doing better in these voucher schools.
So here's the upshot: I think the status quo is intolerable, whether it's in Chicago or New York or LA or in Milwaukee. If you've got half the kids dropping out and only have 1 out of every 10 kids reading at grade level or going to college, then the system does not work. I don't think that only money solves the problem. I do think money helps.
I think we have to have early childhood education. I think we have to pay our teachers more. I think we have to do a much better job of training teachers. I think colleges of education have to be accredited. I think how we match up master teachers with apprentice teachers as they're first starting off, creating a critical mass that has a culture of excellence inside schools. Making sure our assessments are not built just around a single standardized test, but nevertheless are high and have buy-in from the teachers. Having principals who are excellent leaders...there are a whole host of things we can do, which will cost money.
I think we should foster competition within the public school system with charters and anything that works we should try to scale up and replicate. And, I think that we have to have a cultural change in education in inner-city communities and low-income communities across the country -- not just inner city, but also rural, where parents and community and leaders who have a soapbox are emphasizing educational excellence. That's something that we don't do enough of.
There's a sense that education is a passive activity where you tip your head over and pour education in somebody's ear, and that's not how it works. So we're going to have to work with parents -- that's why I like programs, one of the things I've championed, having nurses or social workers or teachers visiting at-risk parents the moment that child is born, and trying to see if we can help them from [ages] zero to three, developing just habits of reading to your child. Or if the parent doesn't read, helping the parent to learn to read so they can read to their child, engaging them, talking to them, putting them in stimulating environments.
None of these things are panaceas. They're not going to solve every problem, but I think they can improve our outcomes."
Question: "There is a longitudinal study underway on choice schools. If it is judged credible and the results are favorable to choice schools, would you be less of a skeptic?"
Sen. Obama's answer: "That's a loaded question. So what I don't want to do is start saying, 'Well, if the study shows that it works, I'm all for it', because I'd want to find out is this a legitimate study in the sense that, in particular, the parents who took the affirmative step to take their kids out of an existing school and put them into a school of their choice -- are those parents who tend to be more attentive or more aggressive parents and somehow... I'm assuming that any credible study would have to factor some of that stuff out.
Here's what I'll say: I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We're losing several generations of kids and something has to be done."