School Choice & Charters

Obamas Take Up Search for a School for Their Daughters

By Alyson Klein — November 14, 2008 3 min read
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The question of where the young daughters of President-elect Barack Obama and Michelle Obama will attend school took center stage in the transition process this week.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The Clintons’ only child, Chelsea, attended Sidwell Friends School, a private, Quaker school in Washington. She graduated from high school in 1997 and was attending Stanford University by the time her father left office.

The Obamas were in Washington to meet with President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the White House. During that trip, Mrs. Obama toured at least two private schools in Washington for the couple’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, who are in the 5th and 2nd grades, respectively, at the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, not far from their home.

The president-elect had said in a press conference that Mrs. Obama would be in charge of scouting out schools. On Nov. 10, she visited Georgetown Day School, an independent school founded in 1945 as one of the city’s first integrated schools, and the Sidwell Friends School, a private, Quaker school that Chelsea Clinton attended. One of Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s granddaughters also attends that school.

The Obamas are also rumored to be considering the Maret School, another independent private school in the city. Elementary tuition for those schools this year is as much as $28,000.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: The Carters’ daughter, Amy, attended Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School (where she is entering for her first day) and Rose Lee Hardy Middle School, both Washington public schools, during her father’s administration.

Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, said he hoped that researching the options available in the nation’s capital might make Mr. Obama reconsider his position on private school vouchers, which he opposed during the presidential campaign.

“I hope this experience of trying to find a quality school in D.C. would make President-elect Obama and Michelle Obama sympathetic to the other parents in D.C. who aren’t as fortunate” as they are, Mr. Lips said.

If the Obama girls end up in private school, their father would not be the first president to oppose vouchers while sending his children to private school, Mr. Lips said. President Bill Clinton also opposed private school vouchers.

President Jimmy Carter, who sent his daughter, Amy, to Washington public schools, told an interviewer in 1993 that he was “very disappointed” with the Clintons’ choice of a private school for Chelsea.

But others say that a presidential family should make the best educational decision for the children involved.

Jay P. Greene, a supporter of private school vouchers and a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said he didn’t see any inherent contradiction in policymakers’ opposing vouchers while sending their own children to private school.

PRESIDENT GERALD R. FORD: The Fords’ daughter, Susan, attended the Holton-Arms School, a private girls’ school in Bethesda, Md., during part of the Ford presidency. She graduated in 1975. That year, her senior prom was held at the White House.

“It may be bad policy to oppose vouchers, but it isn’t hypocrisy to do so while choosing a private school for oneself,” Mr. Greene wrote in an e-mail. He likened the decision to supporting generous funding for public transportation, while owning a pricey car.

Charter Options

Mary Lord, a member of the District of Columbia board of education who represents the neighborhood in which the White House is located, agreed that the Obamas’ choice is ultimately personal, not political. She said she has sent her own children to private, traditional public, and charter schools in the city.

But she urged the incoming first family at least to consider the 49,000-student school system’s traditional public schools and charter schools.

“I would encourage the Obamas to at least pop in the door of a few of our outstanding public and public charter schools,” Ms. Lord said. “If you don’t know what’s behind the closed door, you’re not really making an informed decision.”

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: President Johnson’s daughter Luci, who was 16 when her father took office in 1963. She attended the National Cathedral School, a private girls’ school in Washington.

She suggested the family look at Anthony Hyde Elementary School in the city’s storied Georgetown neighborhood and Strong John Thomson Elementary School, which offers Chinese-language instruction. “These are all fantastic schools within spitting distance of the White House,” she said.

Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, suggested that the Obamas consider public charter schools.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Caroline Kennedy was 3 years old when her father assumed the presidency in 1961. Her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, made a preschool classroom on the third floor of the White House. Her brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., was just shy of his 3rd birthday when his father was assassinated.

“I don’t think it matters at all politically” which school the Obamas choose, she said. “I don’t think anybody will actually be angry with them if they don’t send their kids to a public school. I do think if they sent their kids to a charter school, that would have enormous value to the charter school movement.”

Mr. Obama voiced support for charter schools during the campaign, saying he would like to double federal funding for them, from $200 million to $400 million.

Ms. Mead suggested the Obamas take a look at Capital City Charter School, in Washington’s diverse Columbia Heights neighborhood. She said it might be a good fit since it serves poor students, as well the children of more affluent, educated professionals.

Library Director Kathryn Dorko contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Obamas Take Up Search for a School for Their Daughters

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