Monday, October 27, 2008
I agree with Rick that the issue of school choice has been largely missing from discussions surrounding the “Catholic vote” in the upcoming election. With respect this subject, let me share with you a brief conversation that I had with one of the presidential candidates several years ago.
Like many institutions, Loyola University Chicago School of Law sponsors an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture in honor of the slain civil rights leader. A few years ago, when he was serving in the Illinois Senate, we invited Barack Obama to deliver the lecture. He gave what was by all accounts a superb address in which he stressed the importance of education as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. Education is, after all, not only the key to better jobs and higher levels of employment and income, but it is one of the primary means of personal development and discovery about the world.
After the lecture, Obama met with those in attendance and responded to some questions. I introduced myself – his wife Michelle and I were law school classmates, and we also worked as associates in the same Chicago law firm. I then asked him why, given his obvious appreciation for the importance of education, the meaning it can have in the life of an individual, and the need to make decent education available to all young people in order to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, why wouldn’t he support vouchers?
His initial response was that we shouldn’t give up on public schools (a point with which I agreed) and that we needed to provide additional funding to these schools in order to help them succeed. I then reminded him of the fact that many private schools spend far less on their students than do public schools with much better results. He said that those results were skewed because private schools could be selective in the students they admitted. I said that while that was undoubtedly true of some private schools, it wasn’t true of the Catholic parochial schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, many of which are located in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the City. And I have to say, I was struck by the fact that he really didn’t have a response to this. He simply returned to the point that we shouldn’t give up on the public schools.
My impression from the lecture and this brief encounter was that Obama was a very able speaker with a commanding presence. My impression – not based on what he said but on what he didn’t say – was that this was a man who couldn’t speak his mind on education because he was beholden to the teachers’ unions. Sadly, this appears to be a feature of his political identity (see the article here) that seems not to have changed over time.