n Washington, we have these arguments every time a rich Democrat sends his kids to private schools, which is very often. The real issue is why the public schools are unacceptable to pretty much anyone, liberal or conservative, who has other options.
Most Washington public schools are hellholes. So parents here — including the first family — find hypocrisy a small price to pay for fulfilling their parental obligations.
According to data compiled by the Washington Post in 2007, of the 100 largest school districts in the country, D.C. ranks third in spending for each student, around $13,000 a pupil, but last in spending on instruction. More than half of every dollar of education spending goes to the salaries of administrators. Test scores are abysmal; the campuses are often unsafe.
Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s new school chancellor, in 17 months has already made meaningful improvements. But that’s grading on an enormous curve. The Post recently reported that on observing a bad teacher in a classroom, Rhee complained to the principal. “Would you put your grandchild in that class?” she asked. “If that’s the standard,” replied the principal, “we don’t have any effective teachers in my school.”
So if Obama and other politicians don’t want to send their kids to schools where even the principals have such views, that’s no scandal. The scandal is that these politicians tolerate such awful schools at all. For anyone.
It was reported last week that the Obamas have chosen the elite, $30,000 per year Sidwell Friends School for their daughters. On blogs, there are the predictable arguments about whether President-elect Obama should have chosen a public school instead, with reasonable ripostes about the daughters’ safety.
These arguments, overall, are mundane and avoid the point since the Obamas enjoy the same freedom of personal decision as everyone else in terms of choosing a school within the limits of their finances. Furthermore, no matter what school they attend, Malia and Sasha Obama have all of the advantages in the world. If they truly couldn’t be expected to turn out as decent, 18-year-old products of the District of Columbia School system, then the whole enterprise of public schooling should conceivably be scrapped.
I taught students the same age as Malia and Sasha for a few years in urban Los Angeles. My school was 100% racial minority: 75% Hispanic, 25% African-American. While Sidwell’s exhaustive website notes that the school’s missions include “prizing diversity” and “environmental stewardship,” our motto was simply, “Be respectful, responsible and safe.” I made sure my students abided by that credo, and I’ve lived to write a book and numerous articles about those experiences.