Barack Obama, for his own education, never set foot in a public school.
When he was 10 years of age, his mother shipped him back from Indonesia to his grandparents in Hawaii so that young Barack could get a first-class American education. He entered Punahou, the expensive and most prestigious prep school in the islands. From there, despite his admittedly indifferent grades, Obama was admitted to Occidental, an elite private college in Los Angeles. He spent two years there, after which he transferred to Columbia University, one of the private Ivy League schools. After Columbia, Obama attended Harvard Law, another private Ivy League school.
What about Michelle, then Michelle Robinson? Doesn't she often brag that she attended public schools? But her public school cheerleading requires an asterisk. True, Michelle attended a public high school. But it was Chicago's first magnet school, and admission was a selective and highly competitive process. Michelle spent close to three hours each day on a bus to escape her subpar local public school. So Michelle, in essence, attended an exclusive high school, an option available to her because of her proactive, pro-education parents and her willingness to sacrifice the time to go to and from this superior school.
What about the Obama's own children? Surely the children of a pro-public school politician would attend public schools as a seal of approval. On the contrary, the children of then-Sen. Obama attended a private school operated by the University of Chicago, where Obama had taught as an instructor in the law school. This job enabled the Obama girls to go at little or no cost to Obama.
After Obama was elected president and preparing to move to Washington, D.C., Michelle Obama engaged in a public search for an appropriate school for their children. Michelle considered public schools in D.C. "There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system," her husband said later.
But, come time for enrollment, the Obamas chose Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school whose most famous recent grad is Chelsea Clinton. Annual tuition? Almost $40,000 a year, and this excludes books and other material.
Democrats, of course, argue that we need to "invest" more in education. We already spend more on education, K-12, than any other country with the exception of Switzerland, Norway and Luxembourg.
Back in 1985, a federal judge decided to take a different approach, instead of mandating cross-town busing in Kansas City. Why not make urban schools so attractive that all students, no matter their race, would want to go there? He ordered the school district to build what many called "world-class public schools."
And spend they did.
The district built 15 new schools. Then it equipped dozens of magnet schools with equipment and personnel for state-of-the-art academic, athletic and arts programs. One elementary school offered private Suzuki violin lessons for every student. A middle school hired 10 "resource teachers" to develop projects in specialty subjects. Kansas City added a Montessori kindergarten and a first-grade Spanish immersion program. Some teachers got raises, while others received reduced workloads.
At a time when most Americans didn't have a PC or an Apple Macintosh, one Kansas City high school boasted 900 top-of-the-line computers. Others had an Olympic-sized swimming pool complete with six diving boards, a padded wrestling room, a classical Greek theater, an eight-lane indoor track and a professionally equipped gymnastics center. Some of the renovations included a robotics lab, TV studios, a zoo, a planetarium and a wildlife sanctuary. Instead of using buses to bring white kids to the inner-city schools, the district hired 120 taxis.
After 15 years and $2 billion dollars, the Kansas City school district failed all of Missouri's 11 academic performance standards and became the first big-city school district to lose its academic accreditation. All that spending managed to attract several hundred white suburban students in the early 1990s, but many later left.
This brings us to vouchers, where the money follows the student — rather than the other way around.
Urban parents want the option to remove their kid from an underperforming local government school to a better school. Polls show 80 percent of inner-city parents want vouchers. In Philadelphia, 44 percent of public-school teachers with school-age children send their kids to a private school. In Chicago, it's 39 percent. Nationwide, about 11 percent of all parents enroll their children in private schools; only 6 percent of black parents do so.
A year and a half after the Obama girls had settled into their new school, Obama was asked whether any D.C. public schools offered his daughters the same quality of education as a private school. "I'll be blunt with you," said Obama. "The answer is 'no' right now." But then he added, "Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is for a mom or a dad who are working hard but don't have a bunch of connections." So it's who you know, how much clout you have.
Obama does not realize it, but he made an open-and-shut case for vouchers.