Obama: On Education, Is The President Liberals’ Piñata?

While the rest of us offered thanks for family and friends on Thanksgiving, one D.C. teacher told a colleague, “I am thankful Obama won, now I can go back to hating him for what he’s doing to public education.” You mean like pumping almost $100 billion in new funds into federal education programs and another $60 billion into saving teacher jobs? My condolences. He forgot your unicorn.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this barb, but an entire cottage industry of potshotters has emerged on the left since President Obama came into office. For the most part, these are well-meaning, committed, pro-public education advocates who just can’t pass up any opportunity to unload on the Obama administration.

While both sides in the education wars can be churlish, as I’ve blogged about before, as a liberal myself, there’s something unique about the way that lefties go after each other. They treat President Obama like a piñata, seeming to derive the utmost satisfaction from taking ego-gratifying swings at the guy. The latest grievance: Obama sends his daughters to a $30,000 per year private school while banishing millions of poor children to public schools that don’t resemble $30,000 per year private schools. Or something.

A magazine piece ran last week chiding the President to educate all public school children like Sasha and Malia, followed by a blog post expanding on the Obama is a hypocrite theme. Apparently, this is not a new complaint.

So, dear readers, as Iyanla Vanzant says, “Let’s call a THING a THING!”

It’s not unprecedented for presidents (even Democratic ones) to send their children to private schools. It’s also a pipedream to believe that small class sizes, art teachers and standardized testing is all that separates Sidwell Friends from any neighborhood public school, in D.C. or Dubuque.

Sidwell is a highly-selective private school with elitism baked into its DNA. Take one part highly-motivated students, mix in highly-motivated parents, accept a fraction of applicants, add a five-figure price-tag and the enriched learning environment it brings, and you have a school that exceeds even the most high-performing public schools. That’s not a diss on public education. It’s reality. And there’s not a darn thing the President can do to change that.

Now we’ve dispatched with that red herring, let’s get to the crux of the matter: liberals’ “disappointment” in Obama on education policy. What makes this so insipid is that it’s just not true. It was clear from the start that his education proposals were going to be grounded in opportunity and responsibility. To no surprise, he’s dished up a heaping serving of both.

Obama made investments in education one of the key prongs of his economic plan and refocused national attention on education at a time of enormous challenges: a frightening economy, two protracted wars and reforming the health care system, just to name a few. The fact that this President refused to put education on the back burner says a lot about his value system.

Recognizing the intractable quagmire that comes with education reform, who can blame him for trying to find common ground between opposing camps as he formulated policy initiatives: pouring more money into schools [liberals cheer] with more reliance on data for results [conservatives nod].

We live in schizophrenic times when liberals deify a data-cruncher like Nate Silver and use data to guide decisions from buying a car to choosing a college, even as we disdain the notion that student achievement and teacher performance is quantifiable. Obama never said test scores should be the end-all and be-all, nor can he put the genie back in the bottle. The world has changed – everywhere but K-12 education.

He gets community organizing, so if liberal intellectuals joined together and clearly articulated better alternatives, I bet he’d notice. This begs for classroom teachers, parents and education leaders to lay out smart and realistic strategies with strong accountability: using data including test scores to make wise, not punitive, decisions; and acknowledging that there are some teachers who are weak, and if they are not directed and helped to improve, students suffer.

It also calls for liberals to stop using “poverty” as the ace in the deck. Poverty is real – high-need schools don’t get the money, talent and resources their students need. If we want accountability to drive change, deal with the obstacles in the way of these kids. But it’s not all or nothing. The other side: “No excuses.” Too many on our side: “Solve poverty, then get back to us.” Both sides drawing ridiculous lines in the sand.

Is Obama perfect? No. Has he made some missteps? Of course. But does he deserve the unrelenting potshots that have been leveled at him? Heck no.

An overwhelming majority of Americans (68 percent) believe the President can improve education in his second term. Liberals have a window to organize and play a role in showing him how. Or just continue striking an ostrich pose on test scores and throwing him shade. By the way, how’s that working?