Opinion

Obama giving in again to the government education monopoly

Peter Roff Contributor
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For all his talk of reform, President Barack Obama and his allies have it in for anything not part of the government education monopoly.

Shortly after he chose to send his two daughters to the ritzy and exclusive Sidwell Friends School “because he knew they would get a far better education there than in the struggling D.C. public schools,” Jo-Ann Armao wrote for the Washington Post, he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan shut down the city’s highly successful federally-funded school voucher program that gave a few families, at least, a chance at a better education.

Obama also wasn’t much help to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in his recent and unsuccessful bid to win renomination. Everyone who followed the race knew it was a referendum on how Michelle Rhee has run the D.C. schools. She fired bad teachers, reorganized bureaucracies, and tried to make the schools work for the kids instead of the teachers’ union. For her troubles, they beat her boss and she left town.

It doesn’t stop there. Under Duncan, the Obama administration has opened up on for-profit colleges, universities and trade schools, proposing broad, even invasive regulations that could have a disastrous effect on these institutions that, for some folks, are the only option available to them.

The argument, say those who favor restrictions, is that many of these schools don’t deliver what the students pay for and leave them up to their eyeballs in debt with nothing to show for it.  Rather than encouraging the for-profit education sector, the people who make the loans (including the government) and the others involved to develop new rules of conduct, tougher accreditation standards and ways to solve the problem themselves so that the baby doesn’t end up out in the gutter with the bathwater, they are trying to close it down.

By strictly limiting all private-sector college programs, as they are trying to do, the Obama administration is cutting off options for many non-traditional students including minorities, working mothers and those who have been traditionally told they are not college material — just like they closed the doors on the families who were succeeding under the D.C. scholarship program.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Recently, one of the nation’s largest for-profit educational firms, Kaplan Higher Education, started a program to allow students to take classes for several weeks before incurring any financial obligations. This lets the students see, in a very real sense, if the programs are for them and if they have the drive to take advantage of the opportunities being offered to them before they make any financial commitments. At the same time, it allows schools to weed out those who might be a bad risk, who might be unwilling or unable to hold up their end of the bargain, including the need to pay back their loans — which, at the fancy four-year government schools, never really seems to be that much of an issue.

These kinds of schools are an important part of the American academic mix. The schedules, the prevalence of night classes, even their presence on the Internet make them accessible to people for whom a traditional, four-year, state school complete with dorms, Greek life and football games is simply out of the question no matter how much the government tries to pretend otherwise. Even local community colleges, another big Obama initiative, don’t always offer the kind of individualized instruction — let’s say for the emotionally or intellectually disabled — and hands-on experience that some students need.

What the Obama administration is trying to do is limit the choices available to students, so much so that it seems like administration officials want to be the ones to tell everyone where to go, what to do and what to study. The measuring stick they are using, that a degree program’s value should be measured against default rates and by how quickly and effortlessly students are able to repay their loans once they have completed their education, is as outmoded as the switch kids used to have to bring in from recess when they misbehaved.

The proper course is to work with lenders, with accrediting organizations, with students, parents and advisers to make sure that loans are available that meet the widest range of academic standards and allow the greatest freedom of choice — not to impose an additional layer of federal bureaucracy that makes it even harder for the kids who want to learn to reach their goals.

Peter Roff, a former senior political writer for United Press International, is the senior fellow in strategic policy for the Institute for Liberty, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.