September 1 2009
The "Obama Effect:" A Help or More Hot Air for D.C. Schoolchildren?
Vicki E. Alger, Ph.D
On September 8, 2009, President Obama will kick-off the new school year with a speech about the importance of persisting and succeeding in school. The U.S. Department of Education will also post a list of related classroom activities. A new report from Education Next and Harvard University suggests that the president "has the potential to be an extremely influential opinion maker on controversial education policy issues" and that "that a well-publicized stance on an education issue taken by a popular president can shift the opinions of a substantial segment of the American public-a surprising fact considering how stable aggregate public opinion on these issues has been over time." Specifically, the study found that the "Obama effect" can move public opinion polls by 11 to 13 percentage points on issues such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers-in spite of union opposition. Yet when "informed of the President's opposition to school vouchers," public support dropped 12 percentage points. The drop was even steeper among Democrats, whose opposition to vouchers increased from 30 percent to 52 percent. While he may be Commander-in-Chief, the president is not Parent-in-Chief. Three out of four D.C. residents support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program-across party lines-so does a majority of the D.C. City Council. In his first major education address last March, president Obama promised his Administration would follow a "whatever works" strategy for reform. The very next day, he signed into law the legislation killing the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Whatever positive influence the president is having in other controversial aspects of education policy, the "Obama effect" is not helping hundreds of D.C. students who need it most.