Obama debating Keyes, 2004, education excerpt

PONCE: Thank you. Let's move to the question of education. Mr. Obama, you've said that you consider education as the most important civil rights issue facing America today. Currently, your children are in private schools. If you're elected to the Senate, will you send them to public schools?

OBAMA: Well, my children currently go to the lab school at the University of Chicago where I teach, and my wife works, and we get a good deal for it. But, so--

(laughter, applause)

OBAMA: --it depends on whether we move or not. And that, obviously, hinges on the election and what's gonna happen. We're gonna choose the best possible education for our children, as I suspect all parents are gonna try to do. And that's part of the reason why, consistently when I've been in the state legislature, I've tried to promote those kinds of reforms that would improve what I think is an inadequate performance by too many public schools, all across the state.

PONCE: But you're against vouchers, as a senator.

OBAMA: I am.

PONCE: You have the means, to have a choice--

OBAMA: Absolutely.

PONCE: --for your children. What about the families that don't have the means? Is it fair for them--

OBAMA: What they--no--

PONCE: --not to have a choice?

OBAMA: --what they need is more money in their pockets.

And that's why I've supported programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, that provides tax relief to low-income families, so that they can use that money any way that they want, including sending their kids into private schools.

PONCE: Is that enough of a help, Mr. Keyes?

KEYES: I'm sorry, y'all--I do not see the day when every American family is going to be employed by the University of Chicago so they, too, can have a choice.


KEYES: I think that we had better get there a little sooner than that. And I think that the way we get there sooner than that, is to let the money we spend on education follow the choice of the parents, so every family in Illinois--whether they are rich or poor--will be able to have the same scope to do what they think is best for their children.

I do not understand why we should believe it right to imprison the parents of people with less means in failing public schools, when, and then--oh! "I'll let them have a little more money, so they can go on paying twice for education"? Paying with the taxes, and paying as well with money they have to dig into their pocket to earn?

One of the most touching things [that] happened to me when I got to Illinois, was talking to a father who had worked hard to send his daughter to a private school--he was a worker over at Ford, the Ford plant--and we were sitting there in the restaurant talking about this, and in the middle of it, he tells me that his son had died in a drive-by shooting. And I'm looking at this man, whose heart was utterly broken, and thinking to myself that, for all that, he was still willing to make the extra effort, to make sure that his daughter got the best.

I don't think it should be that hard. I don't think it should be that hard. We have the wherewithal and, in addition to everything else, if we adopted a proper voucher program, we would equalize the scandalous inequities in education that occur in Illinois because of the funding mechanism that leaves some kids stuck in poor districts.

Give every parent the same amount that they'll be able to spend on their child, and you can bet, in faith schools and parochial schools and other, non-government schools, they'll be able to get better results for less money than we're getting right now.

PONCE: Thank you. A real quick response, before we move on--and we have to.

OBAMA: Right now, 90% of our school children go to public schools. Some of those schools are doing a good job. Some of them are not. It is absolutely critical that as we move, for example, in charter schools and encourage competition in public schools, that we don't blow up the public school system--which, essentially, is what Mr. Keyes advocates.

I mean, he has talked about eliminating all federal aid to public schools, the Department of Education. That is a 10% to 12% reduction in our school systems. Eighty percent of our schools, right now, are in deficit spending. Eighty percent. And, the kinds of proposals Mr. Keyes suggests would essentially, over time, drain money from the public school system, without any commitment that we would, in fact, create the kind of private school system on a parallel track, that would enable the children that he talks about from actually getting a better education.

We need to lift all boats. The public schools were fine, for most of the people in this audience, and worked very well. And, the notion that, somehow, the public schools can't work today, I think is erroneous. I haven't given up on the public schools.

PONCE: Gentlemen, I have, I have--Gentlemen. No, gentlemen--

KEYES: He made a false statement. I have not advocated eliminating all public monies for education, never did, never have--

OBAMA: Mr. Keyes, that's not true.

KEYES: --don't believe it, and--

OBAMA: You're on record as saying it.

KEYES: I am not.

OBAMA: Yes, you are. We'll show you--

KEYES: And the truth of the matter--

KEYES: The truth of the matter is, it's not a matter of whether we spend as a public, but whether we spend cost-effectively. And the notion that this drains money from public schools--

PONCE: All right. Thank you.

KEYES: --is not true. If you examine the case in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the more general the voucher program, the more general the choice was, the better the performance we got out of--

OBAMA: That is simply--that, that--

PONCE: Gentlemen? Gentlemen?

OBAMA: That is not the case.

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