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Federal File: Private school choice; No job offer?; Cole under fire

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It was probably not lost on President-elect Bill Clinton that as a longtime and vocal champion of public education, his selection last week of a private school in Washington for his daughter, Chelsea, would shoot skyward the eyebrows of public education advocates.

No surprises lurked, then, as the mixed reactions emerged.

Some groups, including the two teachers' unions, said they were willing to separate what they--and the Clintons--saw as a family decision made with one child's welfare in mind from an official policy position taken by Mr. Clinton. But others were not willing to concede that point.

Amy Carter, the last school-age child to live in the White House, attended the District of Columbia public schools.

In their Jan. 5 statement, Bill and Hillary Clinton said the decision to send Chelsea to the Sidwell Friends School, a respected and expensive coeducational Quaker school, was made "after many family discussions and careful consideration.''

"As parents,'' the brief statement said, "we believe this decision is best for our daughter at this time in her life based on our changing circumstances.''

Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, agreed that it was "clearly a personal decision.'' Even so, he said, his group was "disappointed, and [we] think it's a missed opportunity to become more personally involved in urban public education.''

He added that the decision "does not lessen the enthusiasm of urban educators for Mr. Clinton.''

In a statement, the president of the National Education Association, Keith B. Geiger, seemed to agree. He suggested that "many factors'' were at play in the Clintons' decision, including Chelsea's security and her reaction to the school.

While he said he was "disappointed'' that the District of Columbia public schools could not lure Chelsea, Superintendent Franklin Smith added that he was more interested in professional actions Mr. Clinton takes than in a "personal decision.''

But others were less charitable.

In an interview on "CBS This Morning'' last week, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander was asked if he thought Mr. Clinton's decision made him a hypocrite. "The answer is yes to that,'' he said.

Mr. Alexander took issue with the decision in light of Mr. Clinton's stated opposition to government-funded tuition vouchers for parents to use at private schools.

But Mr. Alexander said he did not oppose the decision by the Clintons to do what is best for their daughter. Mr. Alexander's son Will, 13, attends Sidwell Friends.

"The understandable parental desire to get a good education for your children cannot mask the hypocrisy of working to deny similar choices'' for other Americans, said William H. Mellor, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that represents parents in school-choice cases.

Mr. Clinton has "actively committed himself to working against the ability of low- and middle-income kids to have the same choice'' enjoyed by the well-to-do, Mr. Mellor charged.

Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea will be an 8th grader, offers grades pre-K through 12 and charges $10,400 for 8th-grade tuition.

About 20 percent of the student body is on some form of financial aid, a spokeswoman said. Seventeen percent of the students are black, 7 percent are Asian, and 3 percent are Latino.

Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican Governor of New Jersey, has denied a report in The Washington Times that he turned down an offer to head the Education Department before President-elect Clinton chose Richard W. Riley for the job.

When Mr. Clinton said he wanted to include Republicans in his Administration, attention focused on Mr. Kean, who, like the President-elect, is a moderate whose education policies earned him a national following.

Mr. Clinton told The Times that he discussed a Cabinet post with a Republican "who could not do it.'' The paper quoted an aide as saying Mr. Kean had been offered the education post.

Mr. Kean, now the president of Drew University, said that he had not spoken with Mr. Clinton about the job and that it had not been offered to him.

Johnnetta B. Cole, the Spelman College president who also had been viewed as a contender for the job, came under fire last month over charges that she is a sympathizer with extreme left-wing causes.

Critical stories about Ms. Cole, who headed the "cluster group'' studying the Education and Labor departments for the transition team, were published in Forward, a weekly Jewish newspaper, and Human Events, a conservative weekly.

An aide confirmed that Ms. Cole had worked "as a peace activist'' with the pro-Cuba Venceremos Brigade and with the pro-Palestinian U.S. Peace Council.

Although transition officials played down the disclosures, it is believed they destroyed any chance that Ms. Cole would be offered a Cabinet post.--M.L. & J.M.

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