No sooner had we issued Elizabeth Green's dispatch under the headline "Obama Open to Private School Vouchers" than his campaign was scrambling to undo the potential damage with the Democratic primary electorate. On February 20, his campaign issued a statement headlined, "Response to Misleading Reports Concerning Senator Obama's Position on Vouchers" that said, "Senator Obama has always been a critic of vouchers." The statement went on, "Throughout his career, he has voted against voucher proposals and voiced concern for siphoning off resources from our public schools." It noted that Mr. Obama's education agenda "does not include vouchers, in any shape or form."
Clarifying statement aside, there is no taking away what Mr. Obama actually said in the interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentininal that was the subject of Ms. Green's dispatch. "If there was any argument for vouchers, it was 'Alright, let's see if this experiment works,' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids," the senator said. "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We're losing several generations of kids and something has to be done."
Parents of schoolchildren, in sharp contradistinction to teachers' unions, will prefer Senator Obama's initial statement to the clarification issued by his campaign. The initial statement was change you can believe in. The follow-up message was the same old interest-group Democratic Party politics as usual. It was plainly designed to assuage the teachers' unions, who are the enemies of change. If Mr. Obama really gets into the education issue, he is going to realize that no position that includes accountability for schools or teachers is going to satisfy that interest group.
What else to make of the post on the United Federation of Teachers blog, which responded to the Obama campaign's clarification on the voucher issue by attacking him for having introduced a bill calling for rating the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, and schools using a value-added system, and awarding incentives based on those assessments? Senator Clinton, the UFT blog noted approvingly, had called individual performance-based merit pay for teachers "a bad idea" that could be "demeaning and discouraging."
The candidate who looks strongest on the education issue at the moment is Senator McCain. It hasn't escaped the Arizona Republican, apparently, that the daughters of both Senator Clinton and Obama attended elite private schools of the kind that can be accessed by pupils from ordinary families only where there are scholarships or experimental voucher programs. "I believe parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children," Mr. McCain says on his campaign Web site.
"I find it beyond hypocritical," Mr. McCain continues, "that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child's school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe." Mr. McCain's campaign has not yet issued a statement explaining that the candidate didn't really mean what he said or claiming that his words were taken out of context. It's the difference between a candidate who is a straight-talker and one who, on this issue at least, for all the hype about change, is just a talker.