How Obama Can Save Education

Bruce Bialosky

3/9/2009 12:00:07 AM - Bruce Bialosky

President Obama pinpointed our education system as one of his primary objectives for overhaul. Certainly he could be the right person to accomplish this goal. However, accomplishing this goal would take a significant break from his past -- akin to Nixon going to China.

The challenge comes from the fact that his political brethren created this disaster. The principal problems with our secondary school system do not come from small communities or suburban school districts. That is why when voucher initiatives are put forward they never win. The parents in those areas don’t have a problem with their educational system and don’t need vouchers. Where vouchers are needed is the large metropolitan areas of this country -- the cities. Ask yourself who has run those school district for the last 50 years – Democrats and the teachers’ unions.

Not only have they stifled voucher experiments in D.C. and Milwaukee, but every innovation attempted in school operations in the last 20 years has been killed. If you watched Obama’s speech to Congress, you would have seen Speaker Nancy Pelosi pogoing up and down like a teeny-bopper at a Jonas Brothers concert as Obama rolled out one Democratic mantra after another. When he spoke of education and mentioned charter schools, a rather benign development in secondary education, she sat stone-faced as he received tepid applause. One could conjecture that if he would have mentioned merit pay for teachers, as he did in his book, The Audacity of Hope, she would have gaveled the meeting to an end. Unfortunately, Obama backtracked on that as he bowed to the teachers’ unions during his campaign.

Mr. Obama can be a transformative President on this issue. First, he must choose inner-city parents over unions. He has to challenge the existing system. He has to recognize that the existing structure needs to cater to the customer and not to the operators of the school system. He needs to get behind the black mothers who are afraid to send their children to inner-city schools and demand that they get safe, quality schools or radicalize the system. The operators of these systems have failed the black community for far too long and they need to succeed or be replaced. No more lip service can be tolerated while another generation of inner-city youth gets destroyed.

Next, he has to call out the parents. The teachers have a legitimate complaint that they often do not have the parents as partners to create an effective education environment. When children show up to school unprepared, the teachers can only accomplish so much. Please don’t blame it on poverty. It is values. My friend Larry Elder once noted that he went to a public library in a mixed Korean/Black neighborhood. The only people there were Korean kids with their mothers. Education values radiate from the home.

And while Obama is at it, he should go into these neighborhoods and tell people to stop having children out-of-wedlock. Every teacher knows they have a better chance when the child comes from a stable, mature, two-parent family. Everyone can cite a success story from a one-parent family. I came from one, but regrettably they are exceptions to the rule. As Obama said, not finishing school isn’t just harming the individuals, it is harming the country. He was right to say that. He should use his bully-pulpit to demand that kids stay in school instead of having children themselves.

The next problem that our President needs to tackle is the soaring cost of higher education. He wants more people attending college, but every year it becomes less affordable. What was Obama’s proposal – more tuition credits and more Pell Grants? So the plan is to take more money from people, run it through the government’s hands and then give it back to them in tax credits. This is a failed idea. Mr. Obama should note benefits have existed for years, yet it has not stemmed the skyrocketing costs. It may have even instigated the problem by allowing a bigger pot of money to draw from for the universities.

Mr. Obama should establish a commission to discover why higher education costs continually increase at 2-3 times the inflation rate. If the oil Industry raises it prices, half the committees in Congress meet and brutalize oil Industry executives. Mr. Obama has defined higher education as a vital resource for our future. His commission needs to haul university presidents in front of the public and grill them as to why these outrageous increases continue. They should investigate why the increases appear to happen in lock-step. In private industry they would call that collusion. Continuing to create new college savings plans and tax credit programs will not solve the problem. The root cause of the problem needs to be addressed. Without a higher authority jawboning the universities there are no controls. When parents receive 3% raises and college costs increase 7-8% or more a year, it is only a matter of time until the system crashes.

Obama defined campaign goals that demand he think outside the box. He cannot then continue to pal around with the people who have created these broken systems. He must challenge the status quo which principally resides in his political party. He can take on these special interests and unacceptable cultural norms and change our country for the better.

If he did these things earnestly, he would be truly become a transformative President. Even I would vote for his reelection.