Fox News last night aired additional portions of host Bill O’Reilly’s entertaining Super Bowl Sunday interview with President Obama. Beyond a doubt, the dramatic highlight came when O’Reilly wondered whether the president felt he’d been unfair to him. “Absolutely,” responded the president. “Of course you have, Bill. But I like you anyway, Bill.”
O’Reilly used the occasion to plug a policy plank dear to Fox News and its ilk, noting that education is the “secret” to securing a good job. “And in these chaotic families,” continued O’Reilly, “the children aren’t well-educated because it isn’t — it isn’t, um, encouraged at home as much as it is in other precincts. Now, school vouchers is a way to level the playing field. Why do you oppose school vouchers when it would give poor people a chance to go to better schools?”
Now to the transcript:
PRESIDENT OBAMA – Actually — every study that’s been done on school vouchers, Bill, says that it has very limited impact if any —
O’REILLY – Try it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA – Oh — it has been tried, it’s been tried in Milwaukee, it’s been tried right here in D.C. —
O’REILLY [OVERLAP] – And it worked here.
PRESIDENT OBAMA – No, actually, it didn’t. When you end up taking a look at it, it didn’t actually make that much of a difference. So what we have been supportive of is, uh, something called charters. Which, within the public school system gives the opportunity for creative experiments by teachers, by principals to, to start schools that have a different approach. And —
O’REILLY [OVERLAP] – You would revisit that? I just think — I used be, teach in a Catholic school, and I just know —
PRESIDENT OBAMA [OVERLAP] – Bill — you know . . . I’ve taken a look at it. As a general proposition, vouchers has not significantly improved the performance of kids that are in these poorest communities —
At that point, O’Reilly essentially abandoned the scene, perhaps because he lacked the deep familiarity with the issue necessary to debate the president. O’Reilly stated point-blank that D.C.’s voucher system — known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) — “worked.” The president said it was a dud.
The president was right: A study released by the Department of Education in 2010 found “no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement.” O’Reilly was right, too: The same study concluded that the program boosted students’ chances of graduating from high school, and parents were more satisfied with schools under the OSP. The Post editorial board used the study’s findings as support for its pro-voucher position:
The graduation rate for students who were offered scholarships was 82 percent, compared with 70 percent for those not in the program. Few things are more critical to future success than graduation, so it’s hard to discount the difference that vouchers made for the low-income students participating in the program. It’s also hard for those blessed with the resources to choose among good schools to truly appreciate the dilemma of parents powerless to affect their children’s education.
From the sound of his comments, Obama was relying on this study in delivering his limp assessment of the voucher program in D.C. And from the sound of his comebacks, O’Reilly hadn’t studied up on it.
What O’Reilly did present was personal experience, citing his time as a teacher in a Catholic school. After graduating from Marist College, O’Reilly worked at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in a Miami suburb, teaching English and history from 1970 to 1972.
And there’s no question that D.C. voucher money helped students receive the same kind of instruction that O’Reilly admired in south Florida. An extensive Post story from November 2012 revealed that of approximately 1,500 voucher students, “more than half attend Catholic schools and a handful are enrolled at prestigious independent schools.”
That same Post investigation, however, found that vouchers were helping to send kids to “schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings.” Here’s how the story describes one such setting:
While some schools have libraries, art studios and athletic fields, the Muhammad University of Islam occupies the second floor of a former residence east of the Anacostia River. The unaccredited K-8 school is supported by the Nation of Islam, according to director Stephanie Muhammad.
Parents choose the school because of its small classes, safety and strict discipline, she said.
About one-third of the 55 students hold vouchers. Few of the others can afford the $5,335 annual tuition, Muhammad said. They are asked to help defray tuition by raising funds. Last month, they sold pizzas. This month, it’s coffee and tea.
The classrooms are small, located in what were perhaps once bedrooms. On the walls are posters of Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam.
On a recent visit, the only bathroom in the school had a floor blackened with dirt and a sink coated in grime. The bathtub was filled with paint cans and cleaning supplies concealed by a curtain.
Muhammad said in a subsequent interview that the bathroom is used only in emergencies, and students typically use a restroom on the floor below in a day-care center that she had previously described as unrelated to the school.
That bit about Farrakhan might just be enough to temper O’Reilly’s enthusiasm for vouchers. After all, in March 2010, this is what the Fox News host said about him: “Racism comes in all colors, but it’s usually not fair to brand another human being a racist. That’s often a cheap accusation leveled by gutter snipes. But when it comes to the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan the ‘R’ word and the description anti-Semite do apply.”