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Lauer Lets Audience Member Ask the Tough Question of Obama So He doesn't Have To

As part of a sweeping NBC-Universal channel wide broadcast that included NBC outlets like MSNBC, USA, Bravo, Syfy and the Oxygen network, Barack Obama was interviewed by Matt Lauer, on Monday's Today, about the state of public education but in a commercial-free half-hour of interview time, Lauer never once asked the President about his opposition to school vouchers, including a very popular program in Washington D.C.

In fact Lauer missed couple of opportunities to press Obama on the issue, when he made reference to the documentary Waiting For Superman, and when an audience member actually pressed Obama if he thought his daughters would "get the same high quality rigorous education in a D.C. public school as compared to their very elite private academy that they're attending now?"

For his part Obama audaciously responded to Kelly Burnett of Florida: "There are some terrific individual schools, in the D.C. system. And that's true, by the way, in every city across the country" but "A lot of times you've gotta test in or there, it's a lottery pick for you to be able to get into those schools. And so those options are not available enough children....I'll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is for a mom or a dad who are working hard but don't have a bunch of connections, don't have a lot of choice in terms of where they live."

Lauer never followed up this Obama response to press him on a program, namely school vouchers, that would give those hard working parents a chance to get their kids into a better school. Earlier in the interview, Lauer bypassed a chance to question Obama on his anti-voucher stance when he brought up the "choice" option, via this question about the documentary Waiting for Superman: "In that documentary...They talk about the lack of choice that people, you mention charter schools in those very bad neighborhoods. The lack of choice that people in our poorest neighborhoods have. If they live in an area where there is an underperforming school and yet there is a great charter school, the number of applicants for a few positions at that charter school can be enormous. And so what happens, by law, is the kids are put into a lottery. And literally and figuratively their future is based on the roll of a dice or their name being drawn out of hat. It's a bit of disgrace isn't it?" Obama responded that "It's heartbreaking" and added "Our goal is to make all schools high quality schools."

On the bright side, Lauer, citing Waiting for Superman, did bring up one Obama's most loyal constituencies, the teachers unions, and their role in obstructing better public schools as he pointed out the film: "Gives a fairly blistering account of teachers unions, saying that basically they're, they're set up simply to protect their members and protect the status quo and protect those mediocre and bad teachers, and as a result are getting in the way of real reform and really educating our children. Is it a fair assessment, in your opinion?"

The following exchanges were aired on the September 27 edition of the Today show that was simulcast on other NBCU properties like MSNBC, USA, Syfy, Bravo and Oxygen:

LAUER: Got a young lady by the name of Kelly Burnett, back up in New York in our Learning Plaza. She's from Nassau County, Florida. And I believe she has a question for you. Kelly, good morning. What's your question for President Obama?

KELLY BURNETT: Thank you for taking my question, President Obama. As a father of two very delightful and seemingly very bright daughters, I wanted to know whether or not, you think that Malia and Sasha would get the same high quality rigorous education in a D.C. public school as compared to their very elite private academy that they're attending now?

OBAMA: Well thanks for the question, Kelly and I'll be blunt with you. The answer is no, right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling. Now they have made some important strides, over the last several years to move in the direction of reform.

BURNETT: Right.

OBAMA: There are some terrific individual schools, in the D.C. system. And that's true, by the way, in every city across the country. In my hometown of Chicago there are some great public schools that are on par with any private school in the country, but it goes to the point, Matt and I were talking about earlier. A lot of times you've gotta test in or there, it's a lottery pick-

BURNETT: Right.

OBAMA: -for you to be able to get into those schools. And so those options are not available enough children.

BURNETT: Right.

OBAMA: I'll, I'll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuvear to do it. But the broader problem is for a mom or a dad who are working hard but don't have a bunch of connections, don't have a lot of choice in terms of where they live-

BURNETT: Right.

OBAMA: They should be getting the same quality education as anybody else. And we don't have that yet.

LAUER: Kelly thank you very much for your question, I appreciate it.

BURNETT: Thank you.

OBAMA: Thanks Kelly.

BURNETT: Thank you.

Before the Burnett question, Lauer had the following exchanges with the President:

LAUER: There are some good and great teachers in this country. There are also some mediocre and poor teachers in this country.

BARACK OBAMA: Yes. Sort of like, sort of like politicians and journalists.

LAUER: And broadcasters, exactly right. Can real reform take place unless you identify those mediocre and poor teachers and remove them? And when I say "remove them," I don't mean shuffle them-

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: -from school to school or put them in a room, I mean fire them.

OBAMA: Well First of all I think everybody who looks at this says the single most important ingredient, inside the classroom is the quality of the teacher. And there are terrific teachers out there. And my sister teaches and, and when you hear stories about how hard when they work, when they come home from school, they're still doing lesson plans. They're oftentimes, in tough schools, serving as counselors and social workers.

LAUER: right.

OBAMA: So, so teachers are doing heroic jobs. Sometimes they are digging into their own pocket to buy school supplies. And so one of the things I want to do is, is lift up the teaching profession to, to honor it the way it needs to be honored in our society. And by the way, when I travel to China for example, and, and I sit down with the mayor of Shanghai and he talks about the fact that teaching is considered one of the most prestigious jobs. And a teacher is getting paid the same as an engineer. That, I think, accounts for how well they're doing, in terms of boosting their education system. Having said that, what is absolutely true is, is that if we can't identify teachers who are sub-par, give them the opportunity to get better, but if they don't get better, at a certain point saying, these teachers should not be in the classroom. If we don't do that then we are doing a disservice to our kids. And this, the school system has to be designed not for the adults it's gotta be designed for the children.

LAUER: There's a new documentary out right now, it's called Waiting for Superman.

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: And it, it gives a fairly blistering account of teachers unions, saying that basically they're, they're set up simply to protect their members and protect the status quo and protect those mediocre and bad teachers, and as a result are getting in the way of real reform and really educating our children. Is it a fair assessment, in your opinion?

OBAMA: Here's what's true, is that oftentimes teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings and historically teachers were predominately women and as a consequence they were paid less, profession wide. And so I'm a strong supporter of the notion that a union can protect its members and help be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem. What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working. Now to their credit, you've had a lot of unions who are now working with states on these reform plans that include things like charter schools. Include things like pay for performance and higher standards and accountability for teachers. And, and so we've seen states be able to work with teachers unions to bring about reforms as opposed to resist them.

LAUER: Well if you, if you could speak to the leadership of, and the membership of the two most powerful teachers unions right now-

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: -and tell them what they must do, starting today, to be a legitimate partner in reform-

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: -what would you tell them they have to do?

OBAMA: Well it turns out, as president, I actually can speak to them. And what I've said to them and what Arne Duncan, my Secretary of Education has said to them, is that we want to work with you. We're not interested in imposing changes on you, because the truth of the matter is, is that if teachers aren't feeling good about their profession, they're not gonna do a good job in the classroom. But you can't, you can't defend a status quo in which a third of our kids are dropping out. You can't defend a status quo when you got 2000 schools, across the country, that are drop out factories, and they really are, where more than half of the kids are dropping out. In those, in those schools you've got to have radical change. And radical change is something that is in the interest of the students and ultimately in the interest of the teachers. Because the vast majority of teachers want to do a good job. They didn't go into teaching for the money, they went into teaching because they believe they could make a difference but they're in structures that don't work. And what that means is we've got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well, teachers who are not doing well. We've got to give them the support and the training to do well and ultimately, if some teachers aren't doing a good job, they've gotta go.

...

LAUER: In that documentary, I'm not shilling the documentary by the way-

OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: -I just think the people are going to be talking about it-

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: -so I want to bring up some things. They talk about the lack of choice that people, you mention charter schools in those very bad neighborhoods.

OBAMA: Yeah.

LAUER: The lack of choice that people in our poorest neighborhoods have. If they live in an area where there is an underperforming school and yet there is a great charter school, the number of applicants for a few positions at that charter school can be enormous.

OBAMA: Right.

LAUER: And so what happens, by law, is the kids are put into a lottery. And literally and figuratively their future is based on the roll of a dice or their name being drawn out of hat. It's a bit of disgrace isn't it?

OBAMA: It's heartbreaking. And when you see these parents, in the film, you are reminded that I don't care what people's income levels are, their stake in their kids, their wanting desperately to make sure that their kids are able to succeed is, is so powerful and it's obviously difficult to watch. To see these kids who know that this school is gonna give them a better chance that, that, that should depend on the bounce of a ball. And so our goal is to make all schools high quality schools. Make every classroom one where if a kid is showing up, taking their responsibility seriously, doing what they're supposed to do, that they can succeed. They're gonna be able to read, they're gonna have high math scores. It's gonna take some time, but what we've now learned is there are schools that can work, even in the toughest circumstances. And once we know that, then it's inexcusable that we don't try to make sure that every school is performing at that same level.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the Senior News Analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here