Obama on Public Schools vs. Sidwell Friends

Tue, September 28, 2010

Changing the World, Democrats, Moms & Politics

The President has good communications advisers and he’s not one to sugar-coat the truth (which I generally like!), but I think he may have stepped in it with American parents on the issue of education.  When it comes to our kids’ schools, parents know that plenty of them could do better.  President Obama, in trying to affirm that message, should have softened his language a bit in a recent interview, because his forthrightness could backfire in the Democrats’ latest strategy to foil the GOP this fall.

When asked by Matt Lauer on the Today Show about whether Sasha and Malia would be getting the same education in Washington, D.C. public schools as they do at what some consider the premiere private school in the District, Sidwell Friends, his response was, “No.” Of course, he qualified it with this:

“I’ll be blunt with you: The answer is no, right now,” … D.C. public schools “are struggling,”  … but they “have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform. There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system.”

The reality of trying to send presidential children into the D.C. public school system would be a security nightmare.  Only one president in recent times — Jimmy Carter — has done that.  But no one likes to have their children’s schools criticized, especially by the leader of the free world, even if they know in their heart of hearts that there’s a huge gap between the education their kids are getting and what the Obama kids are lucky to have.

I know it’s not easy — we had to make some hard decisions when we realized the principal at our neighborhood school was just running out the clock until retirement, took little responsibility for bullying issues, claimed to have no say in the curriculum or how it was taught (“I’m just doing what the BOE tells me to do”), did little to convince good teachers to stay, and couldn’t explain to parents at his open houses what he was doing to help kids who needed extra help with reading.  But I also know that it’s hard to walk the line of sending your child to a private school and still be seen in the community as committed to public schools.  It can be done, it’s just tricky.  The Democrats may be on to a winning issue to keep as many seats in Washington as possible, but a president who sends his children to a private school may not be the best person to have out in front on that one in an election year.

Putting an emphasis on making public school education for our kids as good as the likes of  Sidwell Friends or other independent schools around the country, like The Archer School in Los Angeles, is a great goal and it’s a sentiment that could help to keep a few Republicans from elective office this fall. But the president needs to be particularly careful in how he talks about it, especially when his kids go to a school that charges $30,000+ a year for elementary school and most families can’t even fathom that amount for a college education.  Parents want their children to be proud of where they go to school and know that if they work hard, they don’t have to have the private school credential to be successful.  Many voters are already on Obama’s case for his perceived elitism.  As we head into November, the Democrats would be better served if Obama plays down the Sidwell Friends angle and refocuses on improving public schools, including the physical structures, how our children are taught, and the personnel.

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14 Responses to “Obama on Public Schools vs. Sidwell Friends”

  1. Susan @WhyMommy Says:

    This is *such* a difficult issue. Everyone wants the public schools to be the premiere sources of education for our children — but what about when the reality doesn’t match the ideal, and the parents aren’t welcomed in to make it better? It is so very hard.

    My new role model is Aimee Olivo, who not only worried about her kids’ future school, but rolled up her sleeves and went to volunteer — while they were just babies. She’s now running for school board, and her oldest isn’t even kindergarten-aged yet. I’ll happily follow women and men who are committed to improving public education — whether or not their children are in the schools in question.

  2. PunditMom Says:

    Aimee Olivo is amazing and I so admire her for trying to make a difference. How can more of us try to bridge that divide? Should it be up to just us as parents? That’s even hard in the context of working with teachers and administrators, because often parents aren’t welcomed and their input isn’t wanted or is discounted. Even as someone who sat on the board of trustees of my daughter’s school for two years, I see that it’s hard to have a say if educators feel like theirs are the only opinions that count when it comes to educating our children.

  3. Just Margaret Says:

    On the one hand–I appreciated his honesty. On the other–I wanted to hear more about how we can do better by our public school students. *sigh*

  4. Corey Feldman Says:

    I agree with Susan; this is a complicated issue. I went to Bullis (a private school) from 5th though 12th grade. I also hated every minute of it. Educationally, it wasn’t a good fit. I was smart, dyslexic and it was pre-ADA… very few schools back then had any clue what to do with a student like me. As an “adult” in grad school I had the opportunity to sub at multiple MCPS schools. I spent a semester teaching at Churchill, which was my favorite HS school in the county. When my wife and I were looking for a house, school district was one of the, if not the biggest factor in our decision. So we ended up buying a smaller place in the Churchill/Beverly Farms district. If we could afford it, I would happily send my kids to private k-12, and it would not change my belief that Education is one the greatest issues this country faces. The public school system is broken and needs a serious overhaul. It should be at the fore front of public attention and funding. Now even if we were to fix it, it would likely never entirely close the gap between Sidwell and Public. Money always has and always will afford advantages. As a parent, I can understand any parent wanting to give their children that advantage without it undercutting their commit and belief in public education. Maybe that makes me hypocritical, but I want excellence for all children and little more for my own…

  5. PunditMom Says:

    Corey, I agree with both you and Susan. PunditGirl isn’t in our local school for more reasons than I mentioned. The reason we bought our house where it is, is because at the time our local elementary school was supposed to be amazing. Then things changed. There are lots of great schools of all kinds. All I’m trying to say is that I think the president just needs to be careful with how he talks about making change, which is badly needed in many schools, especially in DC. I am still amazed that this isn’t an issue that the Dems & GOP can come together on.

  6. Gina Says:

    Our children don’t attend our local school because my son is highly gifted and Oregon is one of the worst states for meeting the needs of children above the norm. While we have strong individual schools and incredible teachers throughout the area, I couldn’t cherry pick his educational influences, even if I wanted to!

    Do I still advocate for our local schools? Absolutely! Every child deserves to be educated in the best way possible. I applied to be on the evaluation board for our school district when they were starting a new TAG (talented & gifted) review. I was denied because they assumed my perspective would be biased.

    Education needs more attention in our country. I’ll do what I can and hope others will. It’s the parent’s who walked away from the public school system that we need inovled most!

  7. Miss Britt Says:

    I don’t get the controversy here. Isn’t saying “these schools are so bad I won’t even send my own kids there” simply affirmation that something needs to be done?

  8. PunditMom Says:

    Yes! All I was trying to say was that given how many seem to view the Obamas (and I’m not saying I agree with that either), maybe there was a better way for him to talk about their personal decision that might better help the Dems in the fall … ???

  9. Ashley Says:

    Such a great question! Like you, we moved to a neighborhood with a great public elementary school. But that school was a nightmare for our daughter during her kindergarten year, and we moved her to our neighborhood private school. Now she’s in third grade, our son is in kindergarten, and we haven’t once regretted the choice (although our bank accounts certainly do). It wasn’t about one school being bad and the other being good — it was about putting my children in the best school for them. We continue to advocate for a strong public school system and participate in fundraisers for our neighborhood schools. We support our friends whose kids attend our neighborhood public schools and always recommend the public school to friends who ask. Just because it wasn’t a good fit for us, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a great choice for someone else.

    A strong public school system benefits everyone, even those of us who send our children to private schools. And a strong private school system is important, too. It’s about choice… making the best choice for your child. And we are grateful every day that we had a choice.

    If I can be an advocate for both, so can Obama. There’s room for all kinds of schools in our education system. And a need for them all, too.

  10. Jeremy Says:

    I’ve never understood the reasoning when parents make it a moral issue (the “I support public schools therefore my child goes to one, even if it’s horrible” argument) rather than seeking the best education for their children that they can possibly afford. It’s one thing if your only option financially is the public school to which you’re assigned – then yes, absolutely that is the best decision – I get that. But if configure your financial priorities so that you can afford it, shouldn’t the moral stand be that I’m going provide the absolute best education that I can within my means no matter what?

    Second, if you are sending your child to private school, you still pay the same tax dollars that fund public schools. You still buy the fundraiser items from the neighborhood kids. You still participate in voting and public discussion to improve your community on all levels, including education. To improve the system, do you have to be a personal beneficiary of that system?

    My view is that every day that passes for my child is a day that they will never get back. There are no “do overs” particularly in critical early childhood education. Each day that passes is a day spent either to his benefit or his detriment, and my son does not have time to wait for the system to be fixed, which frankly if it ever changes, takes decades – decades that he does not have. So why subject him to it if I’m able to make choices that let me provide a better set of circumstances?

  11. Colleen Says:

    I think when people advocate trying something new in public schools while sending their children to private schools, the issue is that they have no skin in the game. It’s other people’s children who’ll be used as guinea pigs, and not all the reforms will have positive impacts. In our area the best private schools actually are very traditional in their approach to education. By the way, we have done a mix of public and private with our children.

  12. Julie @ The Mom Slant Says:

    I think he did the right thing. There’s such a gap between Sidwell Friends and DC Public Schools that to be anything less than blunt about it would be disingenuous.

  13. Sharyn Says:

    I’m with Miss Britt on this one. I just don’t see the controversy. DC public schools suck. Sidwell doesn’t. Shouldn’t the President be able to speak the honest truth every now & then? I went to public schools and will send my kids to public schools – but first I will move out of the District.

  14. Carol Schiller Says:

    So many great comments. Another thought is that it might be a mistake to use the word “public schools” as a general term when talking about quality education (or lack thereof).

    Many smaller cities, towns and suburbs offer superb public school educations. Indeed, I’d stack my kids’ public elementary school education here in Bellevue, WA up against a private school education any day. Remember, school isn’t just about preparing for college – it’s about preparing for life, and being able to successfully interact with all the unique people you will meet during the course of it.

    As for the President, I have no idea what he could have said better, but I do know that no matter what he said, his opponents would find a way to twist and distort it. After all, it takes breathtaking intellectual dishonesty to look at the President’s personal story (a classic of the American dream), and come up with the term “elitist”. As one person said on twitter, why don’t they just go for broke and call him “uppity”.

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