Public or Private: What Should the Obamas Do?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

No, it’s not the economy. Not the Iraq and Afghan wars. Nor is it about Bill Ayers (who was on Good Morning America this morning; a must see interview).  No, it seems the media (that bad, bad liberal media) is focused on… yes, where the Obama children will go to school (see our link below from ABC news).

The First Family-elect must now to move from their $1.6 million dollar shed in Chicago, where the children attend the well-known and exclusive University of Chicago Lab School, to Washington, DC. It is certainly no wonder why Michelle Obama is focused on where her children will be going to school come January 20th, 2009. The DC Public School system is notoriously bad. This is not to say they don’t have very good people and some very good teachers; I’ve met many of them and they sure seemed top notch to me. Still, DCPS historically ranks at the bottom of most lists, such as student achievement, student learning, and college matriculation rates. That stated, DC amazingly spends an average of $13,446 (2005-06) per year per student, according to the US Census. Only New Jersey and New York are higher (the national average is $9,138). It seems to me like a lot of money for not so much return.

But the Obamas are in a peculiar situation. Do they put their two daughters in one of the exclusive preparatory schools in DC, like the Clintons did, or do they make a statement and put their children into a DCPS school? The former may be a better choice for their children, but the latter would be an important political message to the rest of the nation: public schools matter.

This is not an insignificant point. If we continually see our leaders, the well-heeled ones anyway, sending their children to private schools, what message does that send to the rest of us who use the public system? That we are second rate? That we’ve undercut our children’s future? It’s a tough line to straddle for the President-Elect, who has talked about building up public schools in America. But will he walk the walk?

If it were most other US cities, the answer might be easier (or perhaps harder, depending on perspective). Washington, DC is a special case scenario because it is so rotten. I could send my kids to some of the schools in the District, but only some. This is why we see so many parochial and other private elementary and secondary school s in large, urban cities: because we haven’t figured out how to make good urban schools. Some have made significant progress over the years, but if you or I were to move to LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, or Washington, DC, we would have a very difficult choice to make.

As President-Elect Obama progresses his agenda, of which education, it seems, will be a top priority (although I argued against that last week), a major issue is how to make urban school districts better. If many of them receive higher-than-average funding per student, then it can’t be the money. So what is it? Leadership? Many of these districts have had very good leaders in the past, although we can certainly point to some poor leadership at times.

My personal belief, as a former-teacher, is that these districts have trouble identifying and attracting high-quality teachers. And if they do, they have a harder time keeping them. Most qualified teachers live in the suburbs and want to teach there. And when single teachers who do teach in urban areas get married and have kids, they may want to move to the suburbs where they can afford a bigger house and some grass. In the Washington, DC area, teachers have Fairfax County and Montgomery County to pick from, and both are typically considered in the top five school districts in the nation. The second tier, like Arlington County and Prince William, are also decent school districts. So, do you want to teach in DC or in one of these districts? Do you want to commute to DC to teach, because you probably don’t want to live there or can’t afford to live in the nice areas like Rock Creek Park?

Thus, changing the tide of education in urban areas is complex and entrenched from years and years of neglect and suburban development.

A plan to embrace urban and public schools will require a fundamental change in how we prepare and how we pay teachers. I’m not a fan of merit pay in education; I don’t see how it can be done in a fair way. But I think it is fair to suggest that an urban area perhaps gets more budget money for staffing than other areas, or at least base it on school test scores; the lower the test scores, the higher the staffing budget, because top quality teachers will only go if they feel they are being paid well for the challenge.

That brings us back to the Obamas. What should they do? They have no choice; they will pick Sidwell Friends (where Chelsea went) or the Georgetown Preparatory School or one of the other schools (at $30k/year plus; but money isn’t an issue here). Policy is one thing; they won’t play politics with their children, nor should they. He will be the President of the United States; she will be First Lady. It isn’t time to roll the dice on their kids’ future.

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