A first order of business for the move of the Obama family to Washington was to select a school for their children. A brief, intense competition was won by Sidwell Friends, an excellent private school. Lucky girls. Tuition there is $29,000 and Chelsea Clinton is among its distinguished alumni.
That's a pretty common story these days. Now more than ever, parents take care to assure the best possible education for their children. Barack Obama obviously understands the importance of being able to choose a good school.
For himself, that is. A more crucial question is whether he is willing to extend that same privilege to other parents whose personal resources are not comparable to his.
As a moral choice, it's not that tough. Imagine asking a typical D.C. parent, "Would you prefer being forced to enroll your child in the nearest public school or would you rather select from several private, charter and public schools?" The question answers itself. If the neighborhood school is a failing, demoralized inner-city school (often the case) and the other schools are eager to compete for the privilege of educating your child, the choice becomes even more stark.
But Democrats such as Obama face a dilemma. The teachers' unions are intractably opposed to school choice. This matters because they are among the most powerful of the interest groups that constitute the modern Democratic Party and have propelled it to majority status.
The unions contribute heavily, both financially and in-kind, to Democrat campaigns. In turn, Democrat officeholders are obligated to support the unions' agenda, which favors only those reforms which strengthen the union.
Thus Democrats typically support smaller classes, across-the-board pay raises and universal preschool, all of which are enormously expensive and in practice have shown a weak, if any, effect on student achievement. More effective reforms including accountability for testable results, merit pay and school choice have been pretty well fended off by Dems doing union bidding.
That might be about to change. Obama himself has hinted that he might be open to reforms that are not union approved. An early test of his intentions will be how he weighs in on the D.C. voucher program, up for congressional renewal this year after a highly successful five-year run.
Voucher families, with an average income of $22,000, have been thrilled to see their children get some of the same opportunities usually reserved for rich kids. Their children's academic achievement has improved. Moreover, the predicted damage to public schools has (again) failed to materialize. Instead, choice programs are boosting public schools to reforms of their own.
Still, key congressional Democrats, focused as ever on rewarding their friends, have vowed to kill the program. The anti-voucher leader, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, is so confident of success that she is personally informing families their scholarships will expire after this year. She says they look "befuddled."
Obama is well positioned to side with these unfortunate families if he so chooses. He is still hugely popular and school choice polls well with the public. His success at Internet funding and volunteer recruitment makes him less dependent on old-style interest group support.
Moreover, other key Democrats are already breaking with the unions and demanding change. Michelle Rhee, the Democratic chancellor of D.C. schools, is working to end union tenure and seniority-based pay rules. She proposes, instead of protecting the incompetent, paying effective teachers up to $130,000.
Two new groups within the Democratic Party - the Education Equity Project and Democrats for Education Reform - are standing up to the unions by demanding choice, accountability and an end to union work rules. Obama may need to act now if he wants to stay in front of this parade.
President-elect Obama swept the election with promises of "hope" and "change." Many frankly suspected that it was just campaign blather and that, based on his record, he would govern as a typical hyper-partisan politician.
Is he capable of transforming or does he just give a great speech? Does he really care about all children, or just his own? We're about to find out.