Obama cautious of D.C. public schools, but they worked for my kids

Could Obama's children get as good an education in D.C. public schools as they’re getting at pricey Sidwell Friends? Here's a look at that question through the experience of one family.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
Barack and Michelle Obama walk across the snow-covered grounds of the Sidwell Friends school in Bethesda, Maryland, in January 2009, where their daughters attend school.

When President Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer Monday that his daughters could not receive the same kind of high-quality education in a D.C. public school that they are getting at their elite private school, that got my attention.

My two kids attended D.C. public schools, from kindergarten through high school graduation – the younger one this year. I could not have asked for a more fulfilling educational experience for them, both in and out of the classroom.

Here’s exactly what Mr. Obama said in answering a question from a Florida teacher about whether the president’s kids could get as good an education in a District of Columbia public school as they’re getting at Sidwell Friends: “I’ll be blunt with you: The answer is no, right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling.”

Then he seemed to catch himself: “Now, they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform.”

After all, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been huge boosters of D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has garnered nationwide attention for bold reforms that include closing schools and firing teachers and principals. She features prominently in the new film “Waiting for 'Superman.' ” But I digress.

Obama then amended his initial reply further: “There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system.”

He allows that he could have used “connections” to get his girls into a “great” D.C. public school – ya think? – and it goes without saying that if he had done that, there would have been an uproar. So the Obamas went private, which at Sidwell now clocks in at more than $31,000 a year per child.

All this leads to the very loaded question of whether the Obamas could indeed have sent their girls to D.C. public schools. The answer is, of course they could have. But, like most first couples before them with school-age kids, they opted not to. Yes, admission to a D.C. elementary school outside one’s neighborhood boundaries is by lottery. The Obamas could at least have entered the lottery for several of the top-notch elementary schools. Ditto for the city’s best public middle school, Deal. For high school, the Obama girls could have several excellent options, for which they would have to apply.

As Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews put it dryly in a blog post Monday, “I suspect both would be accepted.”

Mr. Mathews also strongly defended D.C.’s best public schools. In his post, titled “Obama is wrong about D.C. schools,” he stated upfront that his own daughter attended private school (Sidwell, as it happens), but only because he “lost a family vote.”

“The District does not have many public schools as good as Sidwell, but there are some that set the same high standards and have teachers just as good,” Mathews writes. “Several elementary schools in Northwest Washington, which attract affluent families like the Obamas, match Sidwell. Deal Middle School and Wilson High School, into which those schools feed, are also just as good in every important way.”

Those are my kids’ schools, and my jaw dropped when I read that. I took the tour at Sidwell once, while my kids were still at John Eaton Elementary, and looked longingly at the beautiful facilities and listened to the speeches about small class size, rigorous courses, and emphasis on community service. But in all honesty, I didn’t see something that was so much better that it was worth robbing a bank and paying whatever it cost back then.

All along, my modus operandi was, I’ll keep my kids in D.C. public schools until it stops working. For my kids, it never stopped working. I know that school choices are highly individual and that no one knows their own kids better than the parents – and that most parents will do what’s best for their kids, when they can.

In Northwest D.C., the endless discussion over public versus private versus charter versus moving to the suburbs also ropes in class and race. Some kids thrive at Sidwell, and some kids don’t. Ditto with the best D.C. public schools. Add Ms. Rhee to the mix, and it gets even more complicated. She gets high grades for energy and ideas, but style and accountability are another thing. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy took her to task Monday in a piece titled “Rhee needs to take a look in the mirror.”

I don’t buy Mr. Milloy’s argument that she treats (white) Northwest D.C. better than the other (black) parts of the city. In my few e-mail exchanges with her over specific issues at Wilson High, she was dismissive. Two of my kids’ outstanding teachers at Wilson were forced out.

At this point, I don’t expect the Obamas to change course and try the “public option.” But maybe the next president will give it a whirl. He or she could be pleasantly surprised.

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