President Obama and I went to school together. Our daughters do not. While Malia and Sasha are being educated at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, the Sidwell Friends School, my daughter and her brother attend E.L. Haynes, a Washington, DC Public Charter School after spending their early elementary years at Watkins Elementary, a DC Public School.
Monday, on the Today Show, President Obama was asked if his children could receive the same high quality education at a DC public school that they were receiving at their elite private school. His answer, in nutshell “Obama speak” was bluntly, “No.” He went on to elaborate, however, that there were “terrific” schools in DC (both charters and traditional), as there are across the nation, and that DC was still struggling though we had made important strides. As I watched, I was okay with his answer, though it struck a chord of worry in my conscious. Maybe I wasn’t doing the absolute best for my children because even though E.L. Haynes and Watkins are, in my view, “terrific” public schools, I had not at least tried come up with the requisite $60,000 tuition to insure the most “terrific” future for both of them.
It is interesting to watch the “fall-out” from the President’s remarks, as local media pokes about to find out who took offense. It turns out, very few. Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging but polarizing change agent credited for improving DC schools but calling the recent election results defeating the current mayor “devastating” was apparently not offended. Vincent Gray, by all accounts the next DC mayor, was also apparently not insulted. While it is good to know that Ms. Rhee and Mr. Gray are not afraid to face the truth about current educational progress, the $60,000 question here is whether they will be able to work together to continue that progress in a Gray Administration that will purportedly focus on a type of outreach and inclusiveness that might slow-down Rhee’s expeditious nature.
I also don’t think that many parents were offended by President Obama’s comment. In fact, many would undoubtedly jump at the opportunity for their child to attend Sidwell over a DC public school any day. After all, parents, including the President and First Lady, have the right to send their daughters to any school – public or private – of their choosing.
Trouble is that most parents do not have such options. And many actually choose to remain in public schools while reformers like Rhee seek to expand educational success stories from isolated islands of excellence to widespread hemispheres of hope (to coin a phrase from Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ).
I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. While my government salary and extra cash I earn writing children’s books certainly would not support the cost of double tuition at Sidwell Friends, there is also something inspiring and exciting about living the educational change that we seek. As a citizen of this democracy and a personal benefactor of public-school educational opportunity, I should not expect any less.
Perhaps what gnaws me about the President’s comments is simple – most families in DC and the nation have false choices. $60,000 tuition – not a realistic option. Winning the educational lottery – works if you’re lucky. Transferring to a new school because yours did not measure up to annualized targeted average test scores – impractical, unworkable, and what happens when we there are no more places to run?
My children won the public school educational lottery. If they (and the school) stay on track, perhaps they will meet Malia and Sasha in college. But what of those whose numbers were not called? Which of the educational choices are they left with? Will the reformers stand by them even when it’s politically untenable?
Whether we are speaking of Malia and Sasha Obama, the Carney-Nunes children, or the fictional “Johnson children” from “around the way,” all of our children are a precious resource with which we will fill the whole of this country’s future. As a nation, if we refuse to roll up our sleeves and invest in each and every one of them, then our entire country’s economic security – and indeed our whole future – most certainly is in grave peril.