Education reform: The cultural tip of the iceberg

I want President Barack Obama to succeed. The problem is he won’t succeed unless he pursues the right policies. The Administration he’s putting together consists of a lot of veteran D.C. players – but they’re mostly veterans of the status quo muddle and not reform. While the country needs “real change,” it’s not going to see change except in the wrong direction.

What the country will see is an increase of what we already have – more excessive government spending, more debt, more government screwing up of the health care system, more governmental meddling into the energy markets, more destructive education policies.

The anti-intellectualism that the “era of Obama” ushers in will have countless examples – none better than the mess that is the K-12 government run school system, which is the cultural tip of the iceberg.

By “anti-intellectualism” I mean emotion over evidence. Clearly the election of Obama was driven by the economic crisis caused by the culmination of bad government policies. By November, the country was right where it needed to be for fear and feelings to rule over reason.

How else can you explain the election of a man whose only accomplishment before getting elected president was writing best selling autobiographies? Even Michelle Obama admitted just four years ago that he hadn’t “done anything yet.”

Many Obama voters didn’t even know his policies – and a documentary sadly gave humorous examples of it (see link here). Other Obama voters I spoke with personally dismissed the notion that it was worth weighing the evidence about whether this or that policy worked or not. They didn’t care. They suffered from Bush Derangement Syndrome and they wanted to “rebrand the country,” whatever that means.

In the past five months the government has managed to make things even worse through ill-designed bailouts. Now, the stage is set for Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to empower failed government even more.

The Associated Press posted a story this morning about everybody’s favorite diversion (Gov. Rod Blagojevich) with this headline:

AP Exclusive: Ill. gov got $80K from road builders

Rank and file Republicans must begin to build a local, state and national political party that activates real change supporting Americans, who will elect better leaders and reach more people. However, don’t plan on seeing many press releases like the one posted below until we can win the debate based on reason rather than emotion.

The major challenges of the day all demand an awakened citizenry that chooses personal responsibility over the hiring of more bureaucrats. It matters who makes the decisions when it comes to the economic lives of 300 million Americans. The larger the government’s role, the worse things will be and the greater the debt burden our kids will inherit.

The same applies to Social Security reform, health care reform, tax reform, and education reform. For Obama to succeed, he’ll have to drop his ideology and commit to the kind of change agenda that is based on evidence like this:

University of Arkansas Study of Voucher Program Finds Parents Satisfied, Say They Are More Involved

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Parents report that having a choice of where to send their children to school boosts their satisfaction with and involvement in schools, a study of the publicly funded school voucher program in Washington, D.C., has found.

Researchers with the School Choice Demonstration Project based at the University of Arkansas have conducted focus groups with parents over the four years that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has operated. They found that parents whose children attend private schools on the vouchers describe moving from the margins to the center of their children’s academic development.

“This study provides extraordinary insights into the experiences of families participating in a unique publicly funded education reform initiative,” said Thomas Stewart, an independent consultant and lead author of the study. “Their reflections will help refine the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program and inform other efforts to help low-income families secure quality school options for their children.”

“The greatest source of satisfaction reported by parents was simply in being able to choose their child’s school,” added Patrick Wolf, director of the School Choice Demonstration Project and holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. “Even D.C. parents whose children ended up returning to public schools tended to say that they were happy that they at least had a choice.”

A summary as well as the entire report can be read online at

President Bush signed legislation in 2004 that included $14 million annually for the program, which is the first federally funded K-12 scholarship program in the country. Eligible applicants were chosen by lottery to receive scholarships valued at up to $7,500 per year. Families of students who “won” a scholarship could use it to send their children at public expense to their choice of any of more than 60 District of Columbia participating private schools. The pilot program is up for reauthorization in 2009.

The U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a quantitative evaluation of the D.C. program that involves researchers at the School Choice Demonstration Project. This qualitative study, in contrast, is funded by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and is focused on documenting the experiences of parents and students in the program.

A total of 110 families representing 180 students who applied during the first two years of the program volunteered to participate in this study. Their insights continue to shape the scope and direction of the program, and they will help inform other efforts to provide low-income families with access to high-quality school options, the report says.

The researchers examined the overall satisfaction of parents with the program and their child’s school, what factors they considered most important in choosing a school, whether they believed they had sufficient information to make an informed choice when choosing a school, whether they believed their children were welcomed into the new school and how they assessed student development and progress.

A high level of parent satisfaction found by the researchers stemmed from three major factors:

  • Parents appreciated the fact that they made the choice.
  • They reported their children were thriving in the different school environment.
  • They gave the Washington Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit organization that managed the program, a great deal of credit for the way the program was managed and for the care and attention they received from the organization’s staff.
  • Some of the other findings:
  • The factors these parents considered most important in making a choice included smaller class sizes, school safety, religious or values-based environment, and rigorous academic curriculum, opportunity to learn foreign languages, racial diversity and proximity to home. By the third year of focus groups, class size remained a crucial characteristic while school safety was less of an issue, in part because parents were confident that their children now were in safe schools.
  • Families appeared to increasingly demand and appreciate the importance of extensive and reliable information about schools as they progressed through the program. The families placed a high premium on site visits and conversations with school and program personnel, with Hispanic families putting the most emphasis on these, possibly because of language and cultural gaps between home and school.
  • Many parents placed greater emphasis on attitudes and behavior of their children, rather than test scores, as a basis for evaluating their progress. None of the parents polled considered standardized test scores to be the predominant measure when assessing their children’s progress, but one-quarter used student grades to chart their child’s educational improvement.

Several concerns parents expressed during the first three years of the program have been addressed, according to the report. Two that have not are the request for an independent entity to evaluate and monitor the schools and strategies that would open up more slots for students at the middle and high school levels.


Patrick Wolf, Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice
College of Education and Health Professions

Thomas Stewart, independent consultant

Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions

Contact us:

Department of Education Reform

University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions

201 Graduate Education Building

Fayetteville, AR  72704

Ph: 479/575-3172

Fax: 479/575-3196