Senator Obama said this week that he is open to supporting private school vouchers if research shows they work.
"I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn," Mr. Obama, who has previously said he opposes vouchers, said in a meeting with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "We're losing several generations of kids, and something has to be done."
Education analysts said Mr. Obama's statement is the closest they have ever seen a Democratic presidential candidate come to embracing the idea of vouchers. Vouchers are taxpayer-funded scholarships that allow families to opt out of public school and use their government-allotted education dollars to attend a private school instead. They are despised by teachers unions, powerful players in Democratic politics.
When Mr. Obama filled out questionnaires for both national teachers unions last year, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, he told the unions that he did not support vouchers. But on Wednesday Mr. Obama opened his remarks to the Journal-Sentinel's question on vouchers by saying he had to admit that he has been a "skeptic" of vouchers.
He said he was astonished to learn that a voucher program in Milwaukee had never been tested in a longitudinal study to find out whether it had helped children or not. "If there was any argument for vouchers it was, all right, let's see if this experiment works, and then if it does, whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids," Mr. Obama said.
Told a current longitudinal study is ongoing, Mr. Obama said he would respond to its findings with an open mind.
The executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, said the response was unusual for a Democratic politician, praising Mr. Obama for making his bottom line helping children learn rather than ideology.
"I don't think anyone can call him a voucher supporter out of this, but it is an intriguing response," Mr. Williams said. "It is a different kind of answer than most of us are used to hearing from politicians."
The president of the National Education Association, Reginald Weaver, told The New York Sun today that he believes Mr. Obama still opposes vouchers. Mr. Weaver's union has not endorsed a candidate yet. Mr. Weaver said he was hoping to make an endorsement after the February 5 primaries but when a clear front-runner failed to emerge he delayed an announcement. He said he is hoping to continue conversations with candidates about their education plans before making an endorsement.
He said that in conversations he expects to ask Mr. Obama to affirm his position on vouchers. Asked the same voucher question by the Milwaukee paper, Senator Clinton had a strong response, saying she opposes vouchers because they hurt public schools and could also open up the possibility of using taxpayer dollars to finance dangerous schools including training grounds for "jihad."