Public School for the Obama Girls, Please?

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 9:55 AM PST

Dear President-elect Obama,
I'm writing to you as a resident of the District of Columbia, where you'll soon be moving with your two lovely children. I would like to respectfully request that you seriously consider sending your kids to DC public schools—and not a charter school, either, but a full-on traditional neighborhood public school. I realize that you've already taken some flack for ensconcing your daughters in a private institution in Chicago. I don't intend to pile on. I understand that choosing a school is fraught with anxiety and it's the most private of decisions. But you are a public figure, so I think it's fair to ask that you give the public schools a boost of confidence by electing to send your kids to one.
Full disclosure: I send one of my children to public school, and the White House is within the same school boundary as my own home. After 5th grade, my kids would attend the same school as yours. So I have a vested interest in where your kids end up, as any school that lands the president's kids is likely to see a host of improvements. But my self-interest aside, whatever happens with your administration, you could at least leave a lasting impact on hundreds of poor, mostly minority kids languishing in schools that routinely fail to teach them to read simply by sending your kids to public schools.
Bill Clinton greatly disappointed city residents when he and Hillary Clinton opted to send Chelsea to the tony Sidwell Friends School. His argument at the time was that he and Hillary wanted to protect their daughter's privacy, an argument some found disingenuous, given that private schools are crawling with the children of the media elite who rarely, if ever, set foot in DC's crappy public facilities. City residents were immensely disappointed that the leader of the free world did not seize the opportunity to help improve one of the nation's worst school systems, without having to spend a dime.

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One of the major problems with the city's schools is that they've been all but abandoned by middle-class parents who can use their political clout to hold schools to higher standards and to demand sufficient resources for them. Right now, DC schools are at a critical turning point. Some middle class families, particularly with very young kids, are starting to come back into the system, which holds great promise for the future of education in the city. But keeping those families—and convincing more to do so—is a major challenge. The arrival of the Obama girls in a DC public school would send a powerful message to other nervous yuppie parents: your kids will be ok here—come join us! Those parents can be a major force for good that, unlike tax cuts, does have a trickle down effect on lots of kids whose parents don't know how to write grant proposals or lobby Congress. And imagine the turnout for PTA meetings should Michelle join!
While the prospect of throwing your kids into the maw of public school is something that can definitely keep you up at night (believe me, I've been there), you should take heart in the fact that you wouldn't be the first president to do it. Jimmy Carter sent Amy to Stevens Elementary School downtown, and she seemed to emerge unscathed. Stevens was closed this summer and consolidated with Francis Junior High to create the Francis-Stevens Educational Campus, the pre-K through 8th grade facility near Dupont Circle where, technically, your kids would go. There are no school performance test scores available yet for the reconstituted school, but the building was recently rehabbed and now sports a lovely new playground. True, it's a far cry from Sidwell, but it's closer to the White House and, like Sidwell, it has a tennis court. Compared with Sidwell's $28,000 annual tuition (plus $5,000 for aftercare), it's a real bargain, too.
Still, I'd be a hypocrite if I said you should send your kids to Francis when I myself have serious reservations about eventually sending my own kids there. Its junior high predecessor was pretty dreadful; many of its 9th graders looked old enough to vote. So I can see where you might balk at the idea. But Francis isn't your only option. DC actually has a number of very good schools. Thompson Elementary, also not far from the White House, is an up-and-coming school housed in a brand new building and features a Chinese immersion program. The city might even cut you some slack and give you a coveted spot at Oyster Elementary, the award-winning Spanish bilingual school in Woodley Park where schools chancellor Michelle Rhee sends her kids. (Si se puede!)
Rhee, in fact, has said she hopes to persuade you to send your kids to DC public schools. (Please don't respond by making her Secretary of Education, as some rumors have suggested you might do; DC needs her, and she's just getting started.) Her motivation is plainly obvious. She needs the PR. DC schools have such a bad rep that our own mayor, who has made education reform his signature issue, refuses to send his kids to one, so luring in the Obama girls would be an enormous coup.
I'm not asking you to sacrifice your children's education and well being for a good cause. I firmly believe that your kids can receive a perfectly good education in public school here. It takes some work, but it can be done. Besides, private school no more guarantees future success than public school guarantees failure (case in point: Al Gore III, a graduate of the prestigious St. Alban's). Regardless of which public school you pick, your family's mere presence in the building would force the school bureaucracy to rise to the occasion. And think about this: For four—or maybe eight—years, your kids will live inside the White House bubble. What better way to give them a daily reality check than to send them to school with regular folks?
Here's hoping we see you at math night.
UPDATE: At Barack Obama's first press conference as president-elect, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet asked whether Obama would be sending his children to private or public schools in Washington. He replied that no decision has yet been made and that he and Michelle would be "scouting out schools."

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