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Obama on School Choice

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Updated on Feb 14, 2009

Should parents be allowed to choose the school their children attend? Most people, whether liberal or conservative, tend to think school choice is a good thing—that parents and children should have options.

The real debate about school choice comes down to vouchers, and whether the government should fund private education --which often means funding schools with religious affiliation. Monetary vouchers are given to families with school-age children, typically in inner-city school districts, and parents can use the vouchers for the cost of tuition at private schools, faith-based or otherwise.

President-elect Barack Obama is a critic of vouchers. His Education Reform Plan includes funds and support for public schools and charter schools but does not include vouchers “in any shape or form,” according to a statement from his campaign in February of 2008. According to the statement, Obama voted against voucher proposals throughout his career and “voiced concern for siphoning off resources from our public schools.”

A fact sheet released by Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan public awareness and advocacy organization, explains that as of the Fall of 2007, twelve voucher programs had been established or were being implemented in the United States.

“There’s really no data to suggest that vouchers have been effective or ineffective,” says Adam Thibault, Public Policy Director for Strong American Schools. “Vouchers are seen as a drain on public education. It’s a pretty polarized issue.”

The AntiDefamation League (ADL) released the following statement about vouchers: “Superficially, school vouchers might seem a relatively benign way to increase the options poor parents have for educating their children. In fact, vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy. These programs subvert the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threaten to undermine our system of public education.”

“I think that is said beautifully,” says Sandy Halperin, Ph.D., Cofounder of the Saint Joseph Child Development Center in Fort Mitchell, Alabama. “I think the separation of church and state is critical because if we lose that, we lose the foundation of equality in this country. And equality has been a foundational dogma of our constitution.”

Halperin’s private Catholic school is geared toward two-, three-, and four-year-olds from low-income families. “We started the school because we wanted to meet the needs of the people,” Halperin says. “And part of the needs are the spiritual needs. We show the children the love of God. This is an intentional thing—it permeates the atmosphere.”

The Saint Joseph Child Development Center, though faith-based, does not attempt to proselytize. “It’s very different from a fundamentalist school,” Halperin says. “If you have vouchers, you’re subsidizing these fundamentalist schools that are preaching a theology of division among people.”

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