Nothing dramatizes the two-tier public-education system quite like the announcement by the First Couple that their daughters, 10 and 7, will attend Sidwell Friends, perhaps the elitist of the elite private schools in Washington, tuition $30,000 a year.
"Sidwell," the parents joke, "is where Episcopalians teach Jews how to be Quakers." The Obamas called Sidwell, as the locals refer to it, the "best fit" of security and comfort for their children. No doubt. Few begrudge the Parents in Chief seeking the best education money can buy. It's easier than choosing a puppy.
Unfortunately, most Americans don't have that kind of opportunity or that kind of money, particularly in Washington, where the public schools are, to put it kindly, lousy. These schools are distinguished for the lowest performance rates of any school district in the nation despite spending $13,000 per pupil, third highest in the country.
No congressman sends his children to public schools in the nation's capital. More than a quarter of the teachers in the public schools send their children to private school. The Obamas noted that their friends, many of whom will become colleagues on the White House staff, send their daughters to private schools. Joe Biden's grandchildren will go to school with the Obama girls. Chelsea Clinton went to Sidwell and then on to Stanford and Oxford. President Carter sent his daughter Amy to a public school for a while, but soon reconsidered and sent her to Sidwell and then to Brown. Private-school education doesn't determine acceptance to an elite college, but it makes it easier.
Though Washington has several good charter schools, which are funded with public money and run independently of the public-school bureaucracy, their capacity is limited. (The Obama girls would likely have made the cut.) My grandsons attend one, and there's a long waiting list. Charters are not burdened with platinum-plated union contracts and "teacher tenure" designed to protect the incompetents.
Reforms are vehemently opposed by the American Federation of Teachers, the big umbrella union with lots of clout. Beholden as he is to the unions, the president-elect is not likely to offend them. He has emphatically opposed vouchers because they "might benefit some kids at the top; what you're going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom." Unlike his own kids, who have already fled.
Few parents (and grandparents) I've talked to envy the Obamas for their presidential privileges the servants and limousines and the big Boeing 747 but they truly envy their ability to educate their children in a good school. Michelle Obama insists that her daughters will make their own beds and won't rely on the servants, and good for her. But neither will they get a glimpse of how most of the children in Washington, the majority of whom are black, suffer from an inferior education. That's a vividly drawn line dividing childhood friendships.
The public schools were segregated by race when I grew up in Washington. They're segregated just as rigidly today by economic class, as schools are in many cities, and the result is all but the same public schools for blacks, private schools for whites. I once took my son out of a public school because his American history teacher was absent more days than she was on the job; in one conversation, she couldn't identify the fourth president of the United States without consulting her lesson plan, and was not embarrassed for it. She was protected, as incompetent teachers are protected today, by union-backed tenure.
Michelle Rhee, the tough new chancellor of the Washington schools who gets more grief than thanks for trying to do something about the quality of education, offered teachers who agree to give up tenure considerably higher pay. Most declined. They know what we know that few could pass merit muster.
In the bad old days, Southerners often said they would be happy to send their children to school with the likes of the children of Ralph Bunche, the secretary-general of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but not with the children the elite private schools wouldn't take. Such thinking was, of course, racist. Nobody would say such a thing today. But many poor black (and white) children get a public school education in the ghettos that wouldn't prepare them for Sidwell Friends even if their parents could afford it.
Administrative and economic racism, which President Bush called "the bigotry of low expectations," dooms these children, and perpetuates prejudice, as well. Racism, like that rose by any other name, still smells but it's not sweet.