In his second term, Barack Obama could rise to be the education president we have long sought but haven't yet seen. Freed of the imperative to get re-elected, Obama will focus on his legacy.
Obama still faces huge problems with a hard-to-revive economy, but much of that comes from America's greatest crisis: the collapse of our public schools. A generation ago we held a seemingly insurmountable lead in education over the rest of the world, but our high school students are now far behind. Jobs are fleeing our country.
High school graduation was once the norm in our nation, but around 1985 our dropout rates started to climb. The response of the education departments of all 50 states was to lie.
In 1999, our group persuaded the California Department of Education to mandate reporting of graduation rates, and the shock that one-third of our students weren't graduating was front-page news. In 2002, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research took this data to the national level, and the battle was largely won.
What remains of that lie, however, is crucial. Throughout the nation, 15 percent of all dropouts flee in middle school, before even starting high school.
And dropouts are cramming our prisons. California is now spending more on our prisons than all of our public universities combined, with 85 percent of those inmates being high school dropouts.
By contrast, school choice dramatically reduces dropout rates. When families can choose a school that is right for them, they have made a commitment, and the kids feel a sense of community that keeps them in school.
Obama has already been the greatest educational reformer among modern Democratic presidents. But he has made some serious errors -- the worst of which was trying to end the D.C. voucher program at the urging of the teachers unions -- but he has strongly supported charter schools, public schools of choice and the Race to the Top Fund brought about meaningful accountability.
Obama's Democratic Party is now heeding its constituency of the disadvantaged. Half of the latest statewide voucher programs for private school educational choice were passed either by Democratic legislatures or signed by Democratic governors.
And, not only have the teachers unions lost membership and influence, but their influence may fall even more drastically soon.
The U.S. Supreme Court has signaled its willingness to uphold legislation to mandate that unions may use forced dues for politics only with the explicit permission of members, a decision that would open the floodgates to school reform.
Until now, the two big areas of reform have been charter schools and vouchers. But we now have a California homegrown reform as well, the parent-trigger laws created by former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero, which are sweeping the nation and allowing a majority of families to vote out failed school districts and vote in charter schools. Obama could advocate nationally for parent-trigger laws throughout the land.
The collapse of our public schools also has decimated our families, a reality brought home to Americans by the film "Waiting for 'Superman.' " Nowhere is this more damaging than in African-American families, who are trapped in separate and very unequal public schools that have inflicted a 44 percent dropout rate on black youths. Of all black families, 57 percent are now headed by a single mother.
The Obamas' own two daughters, Sasha and Malia, are enrolled in the Sidwell Friends School, which accepts D.C. vouchers.
Thus, it is certain that Barack and Michelle have been eyeball-to-eyeball with African-American families who now have a bright future because of vouchers. And, of course, they know full well that the children who remain in D.C. public schools are almost hopeless.
What could stop Obama now? The giant teachers unions no longer have the leverage they once had with the president. What matters to Obama is his place in history.
That place in history could be greatness. Obama could not only be the president who sets right America's public education system, but he could also be the man who brings African-American families into their rightful place in the mainstream of the American dream.
Obama could truly be the second Great Emancipator, taking his place beside Abraham Lincoln. Let us hope that this nation, conceived in liberty, should be so blessed and that we shall long endure.
Alan Bonsteel, M.D., is president of California Parents for Educational Choice, www.cpeconline.org. He is a resident of Tiburon.