Should Obama have a guilty conscience?

Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett goes after the president for Democrats' vote against vouchers that send two students to the school the Obama children attend.

Published March 11, 2009 5:15PM (EDT)

wrote Tuesday night about a Senate vote that all but ensures the end of a federally funded school vouchers program in Washington, D.C. Republicans have been angrily opposing the move, but, as I wrote in that earlier post, the program was unsuccessful and poorly run and pretty much deserved to be killed off.

One issue I explored a bit, but not quite fully, in that post was how voucher advocates use two students who, because of the program, attend Sidwell Friends, the school President Obama's children go to, as one of their arguments in favor of continuing the vouchers. I was thinking about that today after reading this bit written on the subject by Bill Bennett, who served as secretary of Education under President Reagan:

Keep in mind, the Opportunity Scholarship program currently helps two students attend Sidwell Friends School, where Barack and Michelle Obama send their two daughters, so it now looks like Sasha and Malia will have two less school mates in 2010 as a result of the vote yesterday. As Virginia Walden Ford said: "I’d like to see a reporter stand up at one of those nationally televised press conferences and ask President Obama what he thinks about what his own party is doing to keep two innocent kids from attending the same school where he sends his."

Look, obviously Sidwell Friends offers a great education, certainly better than the one you could get in D.C. public schools, and it really is too bad these two students might no longer be able to attend. And it's a shame that they might be pulled from the school, disrupting their lives and cutting them off from the friends they've made there -- though it's worth noting that given the program's dismal record of getting participants into high schools, that might have happened eventually anyway.

But here's the thing: This argument is based on two students. Two. According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report -- which, by the way, tore the program apart -- there are roughly 72,000 students in D.C. public schools. By my calculations, that means these vouchers got only .003 percent of the total public school population into Sidwell Friends. Even if you only consider the number of students currently receiving vouchers, generally pegged at about 1,700, the results aren't much better -- only .12 percent of students in the program attend Sidwell Friends.

The truth? As the GAO report found, the voucher program wasn't sending the vast majority of kids to the kinds of schools where they can be in class with the children of presidents. "About 88 percent of all scholarship users attended schools with tuitions below the $7,500 cap," the GAO said. "Although tuition rates varied, only 3 percent attended the most expensive schools that charged $20,000 or more."

Update: Steve Benen makes a good point in response to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who led the charge to save the program. Ensign made the Sidwell Friends argument as well, but focused on Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who introduced the language ending the vouchers but sends his kids to Catholic school.

"What I'd like is for Ensign to consider this same dynamic outside of education spending," Benen says. "For example, every member of Congress has access to top-notch, taxpayer-subsidized health care. Does Ensign support extending the same opportunities to regular ol' families who can't afford insurance? After all, if it's good enough for the senator, shouldn't everyone else have the same option?"

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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