Sunday, February 24, 2008

Obama on charter schools

It's nice to see Obama talking about his support of charter schools.  Perhaps a beginning of a move toward the center, as he feels more confident of winning the nomination (as well he should -- his odds have soared to 70% according to the Iowa Electronic Markets; 

Exclusive: Barack Obama interview
By: Mike Allen 
The Politico, February 11, 2008 08:44 PM EST

Click here to watch full video of Obama interview.

Taking a position that could help him win a general election, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in an interview that the federal government should experiment with charter schools even if some Democrats oppose the idea. 

In a joint interview with Politico WJLA/ABC 7, Obama was asked about issues on which he might oppose the mainstream of his party. Politico and WJLA also interviewed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.); Obama refused an offer to debate Clinton, however. 

“I’ve consistently said I think we need to support charter schools,” Obama said. “I think it’s important for us to experiment in terms of how teachers are compensated — working with teachers but looking at how we can reward excellence in classrooms.” 

Asked about the reaction of teachers’ unions, Obama acknowledged that they “haven’t been thrilled with me talking about this.

“My sister’s a teacher, so I am a strong supporter of teachers,” he said. “But I’m not going to be bound by just a certain way of talking about things in order for us to move forward on behalf of our kids. And I think a lot of teachers want to talk about how we can continue improving performance measures. We’ve got to get beyond a lot of the traditional categories.” 

Conservatives have singled out overtures on education as perhaps the most promising way that Obama could convince Republicans, intrigued by his personal style, to cross over and vote for him if he is the Democratic nominee next fall. 

“The Democratic Party is a big tent, and so there are a bunch of different positions that I might not agree with,” Obama said. “On something like charter schools and experimenting with our school system to make it work, I think that we really have to pay attention.”

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A Defining Moment for Charter Schools?

A great article by Richard Whitmire and DFER board member Andy Rotherham about the remarkable collaboration in NYC (thanks in part to Joel Klein's support) among three of the top charter school networks in the country, KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Achievement First:

It started four years ago, when New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein attracted a few of the most successful charter networks (the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP; Achievement First; and Uncommon Schools) with dollar-a-year rent offers. All three accepted, but they did more than that: Rather than compete, they engaged in what could be called “coopetition,” often holding hands as they expanded in the city.

“Instead of fighting each other for resources, we ended up trying to figure out how we can deepen the pool and work together to make resources available for all to grow,” says John King from Uncommon Schools. “Each of us visited each other’s schools when we were starting up and learned tremendously important lessons.”

The intermingling, which began with shared “lessons learned” and expanded into shared training and more, could yield the “Internet” era of charters, a time when the real impact of the idea manifests itself, as the best schools get even better and the low-performing charters (and low-performing public schools and districts) face increasing pressure to improve or close. Powerful, yes. And also a long way from the early vision of charter schools, championed by many on the left as a way to launch more authentic and mom-and-pop public schools, and by many on the right as a way to introduce the relentless pressure of competition into ossified public school systems.

Published in Print: February 13, 2008


A Defining Moment for Charter Schools?

How Networking Best Practices May Revolutionize the Movement, and Reshape Urban Education

Then came the Internet.

You might want to think of the charter school movement in a similar way. Since the first charter opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minn., they have grown quickly, passing the 4,000-school mark. Now there are some outstanding ones and some lemons, but charter schools overall are not proving to be radically dissimilar to other public schools. So what’s the big deal?

Call it the “New York effect.”

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Those Pell Vouchers

While I rarely say this about Pres. Bush, I think this is a great idea.  It's too bad that the Democrats hate him so much and/or are so in the pocket of the unions that they can't embrace something that would give thousands of low-income, minority students exit visas from hell:

Those Pell Vouchers
January 30, 2008; WSJ editorial

If unrestricted federal education grants are kosher for college students, why not for grades K-12 too? That's the question President Bush is asking with his cheeky proposal Monday to create Pell Grants for Kids, a program to offer $300 million in scholarships that low-income students could use to attend the school of their choice.

Pell grants for college are among the most popular ways to spend money in Washington. Over the past seven years, Members from both sides of the aisle have lined up to expand the number and size of these grants that students can use to attend the college or university of their choice, public or private. Last year, 5.3 million students received a total of $14 billion in Pell grants, up from 4.3 million students receiving $8.8 billion at the start of the Bush Presidency. However, what no one wants to admit is that Pell grants are essentially "vouchers," with the decision about where to spend the money in the hands of parents and students.

Mr. Bush's proposal would give Pell grants to students stuck in public secondary and elementary schools that have failed to meet federal testing benchmarks for five years running or that suffer high drop out rates. The bulk of that money would go to inner-city students who otherwise have little chance of going to college or even finishing high school. In the same way, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has given 2,600 of the poorest students in Washington a better chance at a good education.

Neither of these programs is getting anywhere in the current Congress, however, and the new Pell grant proposal was immediately denounced by Democrats. The reason, as ever, is because K-12 education is dominated by a union monopoly that can't abide parental choice. Lucky for students the same unions don't yet run American universities.

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Letters to the editor re. "Those Pell Vouchers"

Below are four letters to the editor, starting with one from McElroy, the President of the AFT, slamming Bush's plan, followed by three that take him to task.

Pell Grants for Kids Are Vouchers Writ Small
February 5, 2008; Page A15

Regarding your editorial "Those Pell Vouchers" (Jan. 30): President Bush's Pell Grants for Kids proposal is a voucher scheme undeserving of the Pell name. Pell Grants are intended to provide access to higher education for low-income students who might otherwise be unable to attend college. Vouchers, on the other hand, have been widely discredited as an educational panacea. The $300 million for President Bush's latest voucher venture would be much better invested in underperforming public schools that need the most help. Rather than reflexively supporting every voucher program that comes down the pike, the Journal would do better to support programs that, unlike vouchers, have been shown to improve student achievement, such as high-quality early childhood education, smaller class sizes, sensible testing and fair accountability measures.

Edward J. McElroy
American Federation of Teachers


Does GI Bill Voucher Concept Work for Kids?
February 11, 2008; Page A17

Edward McElroy's letter (Feb. 5) responding to the editorial regarding President Bush's Pell Grants for Kids states, "Vouchers . . . have been widely discredited as an educational panacea." From what I have read, much of the discrediting has come from Mr. McElroy and his cronies with financial and political investments in the teachers unions and their efforts to expand union influence. Mr. McElroy goes on to scold the Journal for not supporting programs that, to no one's surprise, are supported by the teachers unions.

If you translated Mr. McElroy's self-serving views to the classroom, students would decide what the curriculum would be, how much homework would be given, and the attendance policies. Fortunately, it does not work that way. The tyranny on public education exerted by Mr. McElroy and his posse of educational elitists should be reined in.

Mark Powell
Greenville, Texas

Mr. McElroy's letter asserts that President Bush's Pell Grants for Kids is just another voucher scheme, unworthy of the Pell name, which he wants reserved for low-income college students. If it's unworthy of the Pell name, perhaps we should just call it the GI Bill for Kids. The GI Bill, an unabashed voucher scheme, was one of the most successful programs in U.S. history. It allowed World War II veterans to choose private colleges of their choice. Yes, choice is good.

Government schools initially slowed the movement of underachieving kids to voucher schools through parent intimidation and unnecessary administrative hurdles. But once they realized that eliminating these low scoring kids from their testing rolls would make them look better, they began to cooperate. Vouchers work. If Mr. McElroy won't accept the research, perhaps he should ask the parents of voucher school kids what they think. Then again, what do parents know?

Mack R. Hicks, Ph.D.
Center Academy Schools
St. Petersburg, Fla.

There is an old saying: If you go to a butcher, you get meat. If you get the opinion of the teachers union president about Pell vouchers, you get a call for more money to be spent on public schools. The unions just don't get it. That huge sucking sound you hear is record property and income taxes being drawn into the public school black hole. Money is not the answer. The answer is to reward good teachers, sack the bad ones, and get teachers out of administrative positions and back into the classroom.

The one thing that no one mentions is parents. Private school parents care about education. They are making incredible sacrifices in order to give their children a better life. That's not to say there aren't concerned public school parents but the proof comes when you look at the percentage of parents who attend open school night. My mother, a public school teacher, sent me to private school. I think that says it all. As a parent of children in private school I am sick and tired of paying taxes to subsidize a failed public school system while paying for the best schools.

Charles Plushnick
Brooklyn, N.Y.

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The Learning Disabled Education Expert (Kozol)

I've expressed my views that Jonathan Kozol is a liar,menace and a crackpot many times before (see: and, so I won't repeat them and will instead let The Education Gadfly and the article it links to (below) say it for me:

Kozol review

Gadfly was still a bit groggy from the holidays when this fine piece about Jonathan Kozol appeared in the Weekly Standard. The article traces Kozol's development, from failed novelist (an excerpt of his book Fume of Poppies: "The white of her belly was lovely and gay. The fire beat at us."), to teacher in an affluent Boston suburb, to Communist sympathizer, to angry old man. It's a sad story, really, about someone who has talents but simply squandered them, preferring to rail against private schools and those many decent people he perceives to be racists than to actually help improve the squalid state of inner-city classrooms. (Others have of course noted this before.) Is he still on that partial hunger-strike, or whatever it was?

"The Learning Disabled Expert," by Jonathan Leaf, Weekly Standard, December 31, 2007

Here's the summary of the article:

As we have seen, Kozol dislikes the current public schools, is against choice and competition among schools, disdains vocational instruction, and sees state-mandated testing of students as misleading, unhelpful, and biased. He is a deeply frustrated man. We live in a prosperous society that rejects his goal of radical social reform, and so Kozol spends his life promoting resentment. Confronted by facts and evidence that stand contrary to his ideals, he seeks to poison the wells of argument by throwing in intellectually dishonest terms like apartheid and by emphasizing half-baked notions for which there is no consistent evidence.

A wealth of research now exists arguing for school choice, and decades of failure by a unionized, monopoly public school system presents a clear message about what needs to be done to improve our schools and to better the lives of those rich and poor who attend them. But Jonathan Kozol, like so many true believers, is past examining the facts. Ironically, he is an education expert incapable of learning.


 The Learning Disabled Education Expert
Jonathan Kozol's crusade to prevent school reform.
by Jonathan Leaf
12/31/2007, Volume 013, Issue 16

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Response to Misleading Reports Concerning Senator Obama's Position on Vouchers

Sen. Obama's campaign issued the statement below on Wednesday, clarifying his views on vouchers and what the key pillars of his education reform program are.  In it, he distances himself much further from vouchers than he did in the interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, which is not surprising (he still hasn't won the nomination, after all!). 
Obama has never supported vouchers -- and didn't in the interview.  All he said is that he would keep an open mind about them and do what the evidence showed was best for children.  For a Democrat, that's pretty bold -- contrast it with what Sen. Clinton said (from a NY Sun article): "Senator Clinton had a strong response, saying she opposes vouchers because they hurt public schools and could also open up the possibility of using taxpayer dollars to finance dangerous schools including training grounds for 'jihad.'"
I remain convinced that Sen. Obama understands the crisis in American education, its causes and key leverage points for addressing it and -- most importantly -- offers the best chance of doing for education reform what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform.  I hope he gets the chance to prove me right -- and then does so!

Response to Misleading Reports Concerning Senator Obama's Position on Vouchers


Statement from Sen. Obama's campaign, 2/20/08


There have been misleading reports that Senator Obama voiced support for voucher programs in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Senator Obama has always been a critic of vouchers, and expressed his longstanding skepticism in that interview.  Throughout his career, he has voted against voucher proposals and voiced concern for siphoning off resources from our public schools.  The misleading reports that have been circulated about Senator Obama's position took excerpts of an interview out of context.


A rough transcript of the interview and a link to the video are included below.  The video and transcript make clear that Senator Obama:  (1) repeated his longstanding opposition to vouchers; (2) expressed incredulity that the Milwaukee voucher program has never been studied to see if it works (in light of the argument of voucher proponents that we should experiment with vouchers to study their effects); and (3) re-stated his view that, to date, there is no evidence that these programs are in the best interest of our kids.  He then laid out his own ideas on reforming our schools. 


These misleading reports are particularly disturbing given that Senator Obama has laid out the most comprehensive education agenda of any candidate in this race – an agenda that does not include vouchers, in any shape or form.  Obama's Pre-K to 12 agenda offers preparation that begins at birth and continues with world-class schools, outstanding teachers, and transformative principals: 


-         The first part of his plan focuses on providing quality, affordable early childhood education to every American child.  As President, Obama will launch a Children's First Agenda that provides care, learning and support to families with children ages zero to five.  He'll create Early Learning Grants to help states create a system of high-quality early care and education for all young children and their families.  He'll increase Head Start funding and quadruple Early Start to include a quarter of a million at-risk children.  And Obama will create a Presidential Early Learning Council to coordinate this effort across all levels of government and ensure that we're providing these children and families with the highest quality programs. 


-         The second part of his education plan is to recruit, support, and reward teachers and principals to ensure that every school in America is filled with outstanding educators. That starts with recruiting a new generation of teachers and principals to replace the generation that's retiring and to keep up with the record number of students entering our schools. He'll create a new Service Scholarship program to recruit top talent into the profession.  And he will make this pledge as President – if you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education.  


-         To prepare our new teachers, Barack Obama will require that all schools of education are accredited, and he will evaluate their outcomes so that we know which ones are doing the best job at preparing the best teachers.  He'll also create a voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively.  To support our teachers, Obama's plan will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced, successful teachers with new recruits. And to reward our teachers, Barack Obama will follow the lead of cities like Denver that have found new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them.  


-         The Obama plan would provide resources to try these innovative programs in school districts all across America.  Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with the salary increase they deserve.  They can reward those who teach in underserved places rural and urban communities across the country.  And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.  


-         The third part of his plan is to work with our nation's governors and educators to create and use assessments that can improve achievement in school districts all across America by including the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy. Finally, Obama understands that government alone cannot solve the problems in our education system and that parents have to meet their own responsibilities and get involved in their children's education. 


-         Obama believes our commitment to education has to be real and not just rhetorical. He often says the problem with No Child Left Behind is that George Bush left the money behind.  As President, Obama will reform No Child Left Behind so that it is funded, offers a broader range of assessments, and has an accountability system that is focused on improving schools.


Video link:


[Here’s my transcript of the entire interview:]

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama On Vouchers; Transcript of Sen. Obama's answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

STOP THE PRESSES!  This is really big!  Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama were both interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal last week and were asked about Milwaukee's pioneering, highly popular (except with the teachers' union) voucher program.  According to the NY Sun (article below): "Senator Clinton had a strong response, saying she opposes vouchers because they hurt public schools and could also open up the possibility of using taxpayer dollars to finance dangerous schools including training grounds for 'jihad.'"
Sen. Obama, on the other hand, had a much more nuanced, open-minded view.  Here's what the NY Sun reported (with a nice quote from DFER ED Joe Williams):
"...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," Mr. Obama said.

Told a current longitudinal study is ongoing, Mr. Obama said he would respond to its findings with an open mind.

The executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, said the response was unusual for a Democratic politician, praising Mr. Obama for making his bottom line helping children learn rather than ideology.

"I don't think anyone can call him a voucher supporter out of this, but it is an intriguing response," Mr. Williams said. "It is a different kind of answer than most of us are used to hearing from politicians."

I transcribed Obama's entire answer (below) or you can see it for yourself here (a 6:21 video):
Overall, I was very pleased with what I heard.  In addition to being open minded about vouchers, he strongly endorsed charter schools and public school choice, among other proposals like expanding early childhood education, improving teacher training, etc.).  He also (correctly) said: "I don't think that only money solves the problem.  I do think money helps."
Transcript of Sen. Obama's answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:
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."

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Obama On Vouchers,"Intolerable" Status Quo, Replicating Charter Success

Joe Williams covered the Milwaukee voucher program on the ground for 10+ years.  He shares some perspectives on this "Holy Shit Moment":

Because I used to be completely immersed in writing about the politics of vouchers in Milwaukee, I have studied pretty closely over the last 18-years as politicians have swung through Brewtown and offered their thoughts on the program. I watched Bill Clinton do the NEA Two-Step Backtrack after sending Democratic Assemblywoman Annette "Polly" Williams a letter congratulating her on her leadership with the original voucher law for Milwaukee in 1990. (He fretted in the letter that the "traditional Democratic party establishment" hadn't given her more encouragement.)

I watched Democratic candidates like Al Gore pander to the NEA by voicing steadfast oppostion to vouchers, only to see him concede later that if he was a parent of a child in the kind of non-functioning public schools we're talking about, then hell, yeah, he'd be a voucher user.

And just as bad, I watched Republican candidates gush with support for vouchers without any sort of nod to the complexities that attach themselves to a program that is obviously loaded with them - i.e. what exactly do we do with the public school system once we let people vote with their feet, especially since history has proven in Milwaukee that a vast number of parents who choose schools for their kids do in fact choose public schools. (Also, I watched them pretend they would fight for poor parents even though, in hindsight, the only fights they were really imagining were overseas.) 

So when I watched the 6-minute video of Obama's answer to the question, I was struck by something. In the long history of the "voucher soundbite" from politicians, Obama may have provided one of the most interesting answers I've ever heard.   

Granted, talking about the "V-word" as a Democrat can be problematic, especially when you are still running in some primaries and the teachers union can karate chop you at a most inconvenient time in your political career. Even at DFER we have people all over the map on their feelings about vouchers. Our official stance is along the lines of "We agree 100% that vouchers are a controversial topic."

So what did Obama say? He is skeptical of using private schools to solve the "intolerable" status quo problem because he worried that vouchers wouldn't generate the kind of supply of high-quality schools we will need. (A somewhat valid concern, I think.) But, and this is the interesting part, he said if studies end up showing that children are benefiting from vouchers, he wouldn't allow his skepticism to stand in the way of doing something to help them.

"You do what works for the kids," Obama said.

I am pretty sure that was what former Washington Post editor Ben Bradley would call a "Holy Shit Moment." He didn't lock the door, like our candidates usually do. He didn't declare anything a success without any evidence to back it up. He actually approached the topic with…. an open mind!...

Private school choice is indeed a controversial topic. But our tendency as Democrats to scream Nyet! before we even poke around a bit not only takes us out of an important debate about educating our young people, it alienates us as a party from hundreds of thousands of parents who simply want a better education for their kids and can't understand why the rest of us are so willing to take possible solutions off the table.

I think that backdrop actually makes Obama's answer somewhat remarkable - if the results are convincing, and it helps children, it probably ought to be something we are at least looking at.


Obama On Vouchers,"Intolerable" Status Quo, Replicating Charter Success

Warning: This post will use the "V-word" so if that is a problem for you, this may be a good time to go get your nails done or get that massage or something.

"You do what's right for the kids." — Barack Obama. Read on…

So The Obamanator has taken his "Yes We Can" tour to Favreville, or as some maps still insist on calling it, Wisconsin. And he decides to sit down with the editorial board from my old stomping/scribbling ground, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And the editors, who know how to take a local issue and use it to squeeze some substance out of a guy like The Obamanator, decide to ask him about Milwaukee's groundbreaking private school voucher program. (In framing the question, one editor notes the political contours of the debate, i.e. it is a program that is very popular with low-income parents but, uh, not so much with the teachers union, whose members earn too much to qualify for a voucher. OK, the editor didn't mention that last part but my fingers couldn't help moving around on the keyboard.)

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How is Obama not an unreconstructed lefty

Mickey Kaus covered this on his blog at Slate. 
But at the end of the interview he declares:

I will not allow sort of 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.

You think that's what he said when he answered the NEA's questions earlier in the campaign? ... Update: Back in July, he responded to the American Federation of Teachers questionnaire with what the AFT wanted to hear:

We need to invest in our public schools and strengthen them, not drain their fiscal support. And for this reason I do not support vouchers. In the end, vouchers would reduce the options available to children in need. I fear these children would truly be left behind in a private market system. [E.A.]

Hey, it's his contradiction. Let him explain it. But I note that back in July he was a dark horse candidate sucking up to the unions like every other Dem. Now the power relations is at least partly reversed--if he says something the union doesn't like, it's not clear what they can do about it. They could back Hillary, but that's not likely to endear them to Obama if he wins.

Indeed the politics have changed -- I think Obama has always been open minded on school reform, but Kaus is right that during the primaries, Obama couldn't afford to piss off the teachers' unions.  But now he's looking toward the general election and moving toward the center -- or at least positioning himself as independent of the Democratic Party's most powerful interest group. 
I also think the teacher unions' behavior in Nevada is going to come back to bite them, as I predicted at the time -- see, where I wrote: "the teachers unions are burning their bridges with Obama, which will have profound -- and wonderful -- implications for education reform should he become President."
Mickey Kaus, Slate, 2/18/08

How is Obama not an unreconstructed lefty--Part III: Not only does he support charter schools, but--at least according the buried lede in the Democrats for Education Reform web site--he's willing to point out in public which major Dem interest group is against them:

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Obama Open to Private School Vouchers

Here's the NY Sun article I mentioned earlier:
Obama Open to Private School Vouchers

BY ELIZABETH GREEN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
February 15, 2008

Senator Obama said this week that he is open to supporting private school vouchers if research shows they work.

"I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn," Mr. Obama, who has previously said he opposes vouchers, said in a meeting with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "We're losing several generations of kids, and something has to be done."

Education analysts said Mr. Obama's statement is the closest they have ever seen a Democratic presidential candidate come to embracing the idea of vouchers. Vouchers are taxpayer-funded scholarships that allow families to opt out of public school and use their government-allotted education dollars to attend a private school instead. They are despised by teachers unions, powerful players in Democratic politics.

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Poverty Is Poison

Krugman with a powerful (and spot-on) call to fight poverty, esp. among children:
February 18, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Poverty Is Poison

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.

But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.

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Fresh Start Conservatism

David Brooks with some great ideas for both parties -- and an awesome plug for KIPP:

Third, the next president has to loosen the grip of the teachers’ unions. Certification rules have to be radically reformed to attract qualified college graduates. Merit pay has to become the norm. Reforming superintendents need the freedom to copy the models like KIPP Academies that actually work.

Fourth, Democrats like to talk about college affordability, but that’s the least important explanation for why so many students don’t complete college. The real reasons are that students are academically unprepared and emotionally disengaged.

February 15, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Fresh Start Conservatism

In the 19th century, industrialization swept the world. Many European nations expanded their welfare states but kept their education systems exclusive. The U.S. tried the opposite approach. American leaders expanded education and created the highest quality work force on the planet.

That quality work force was the single biggest reason the U.S. emerged as the economic superpower of the 20th century. Generation after generation, American workers were better educated, more industrious and more innovative than the ones that came before.

That progress stopped about 30 years ago.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Tightrope of Promising a Genuine Transformation

A nice article about Cory Booker, who I thought would be our first black President until I met Obama (I now think Cory will be the second):
it’s hardly an accident that the language, vision and policies of Newark’s mayor, Cory A. Booker, mirror the man he’s supporting: Mr. Obama.

So when Mr. Booker gave his annual address to the city on Thursday, after 19 months in office, it was a reminder of many things.

It was a reminder that Mr. Obama, for all the extraordinary elements of his campaign, is hardly a solitary figure in American politics, but one representative of a new generation of young black politicians that includes Mr. Booker, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of Washington, Representative Artur Davis of Alabama and former Representative Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. It reflected the way race hasn’t been transcended, it has just been transformed. While Mr. Obama has to prove to voters nationwide that he’s not “too black,” Mr. Booker has had to convince voters in Newark he’s black enough. The multi-ethnic America of today is not the black and white world of the past.


The Tightrope of Promising a Genuine Transformation

Published: February 10, 2008


The language was soaring, the racial elements muted, the mood upbeat even though the road ahead remained unclear.

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Newark's Recent Drop in Crime Highlights Mayor's Annual Speech

Some really exciting news on crime falling in Newark (interesting how this gets no publicity relative to the slayings last summer):
Thursday night’s State of the City speech was the annual occasion for Mayor Cory A. Booker to highlight his accomplishments and broadcast his grand plans, but for many here — including, to a significant extent, Mr. Booker himself — the actual state of the city can be summed up in a single digit: 2.

That is how many murders there have been in Newark so far this year, down from 12 at this time last year. And, as Mayor Booker exulted, 109 fewer people were shot last year than in 2006, earning Newark plaudits from a national police executives’ organization.

I wonder what the Newark teacher's union thinks of its "Stop the Killings in Newark Now!" billboards now (see:
February 8, 2008

Newark’s Recent Drop in Crime Highlights Mayor’s Annual Speech

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Walk to Beautiful

Dear friends,
I'm writing to recommend a great movie -- one that means a lot to me -- that has just appeared in a theater in NYC (see details below; it's also in LA and will hopefully soon start running in other cities as well).  If you miss it in theaters, the film is set to air nationwide on the award-winning PBS show NOVA on May 13th.
The feature-length documentary is called A Walk to Beautiful and it features the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and stories of some of the patients who are healed there.  To watch a trailer, you can go to:
My parents lived in Ethiopia for eight years (before moving to Kenya four years ago) and during one of my visits there introduced me to this amazing, inspirational hospital, which was founded by an Australian gynecologist, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, and her late husband to heal women suffering from the terrible childbirth injury, an obstetric fistula.  Dr. Hamlin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and I view her as the Mother Teresa of Africa.
I now serve on the board of the Fistula Foundation, which raises money to support the work of the hospital and also provided funding for A Walk to Beautiful -- all profits from AWTB will go to the Foundation.  To see photos from my most recent trip to the hospital two years ago, see, and for photos from my two earlier visits, click here and here.  To learn more about the hospital and the fistula problem, Nicholas Kristof wrote two wonderful Op Eds in the New York Times, Alone and Ashamed and The Illiterate Surgeon.  I also suggest seeing Dr. Hamlin’s appearance on Oprah (click here for a transcript of the show, which brought Oprah and the audience to tears).
A Walk to Beautiful just won Best Feature-length Documentary at the International Documentary Association Awards Ceremony on December 7th 2007. The film premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival on May 5, 2007 where it won the coveted "Audience Award". Since then it has screened at numerous film festivals.  Below is the review in yesterday's NY Times.
If you have a chance to see it, please let me know what you think!
Warm regards,
Movie Review

A Walk to Beautiful (2007)

A Walk to Beautiful
Engel Entertainment

Ayehu in the documentary "A Walk to Beautiful," directed by Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher.

February 8, 2008

Healing Cultural Wounds

Published: February 8, 2008, NYT

Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher’s documentary “A Walk to Beautiful,” about the mistreatment of mothers suffering from childbirth injuries in Ethiopia, starts out quietly furious, detailing how its female subjects were ostracized by their villages, husbands, siblings, even parents.

The women have obstetric fistulas, holes between the vagina and the bladder or rectum. The holes are caused by prolonged labor and difficult birth, traumas that often deliver a dead infant and cause the mother to leak blood, urine or feces. Ethiopian women afflicted with these injuries can find themselves living in a shack behind their family home, cut off from normal social interaction and marginalized like incontinent pets.

The film follows a group of such women to a clinic in Addis Ababa, where they wait to have their injuries repaired by surgery and form the sorts of peer groups that their condition denied them back home.

While the narrative of “Beautiful” seems straightforward — women suffer and then get better — the film is a complex and quietly devastating indictment of chauvinist societies that see women as lovers, mothers and servants, and treat anyone who can’t fulfill those roles as a nonperson.


Opens in Manhattan on Friday.

Directed by Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher; in English, Amharic and Oromiffa, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Tony Hardmon, Ms. Smith and Jerry Risius; edited by Andrew Ford; music by David Schommer; produced by Ms. Bucher, Steven Engel and Ms. Smith; released by Engel Entertainment. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is not rated.

Quad Cinema
34 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011Map It
(212) 255-8800
Average Reader Rating
5 rating, 9 votes
Rate It
October 22nd, 2007
Pitch-perfect and riveting
If you have time for only one documentary this year, here it is. Flawless and mesmerizing, here is an elegant, spare yet comprehensive presentation of a pitiful long-neglected problem affecting up to two million women world-wide. The camera stays focused on the women themselves and their dilemma, and avoids the cloying distraction of an interloping, inevitably first-world interviewer. The subjects are accorded the respect to render their stories solely in their own terms, and we the viewers are accorded the respect of being presumed to undertand the same without commentary. This pitch-perfect documentary sets a new bar for mature film-making in the service of worthwhile endeavors.
- stephanieben

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