JONATHAN CHAIT SEPTEMBER 28, 2010
Despite my scramble to finish a piece before I vanish next week for a short leave, I found myself irresistibly drawn to a Washington Post front-pager today that may rank as the most absurd political "controversy" since the kerfuffle over whether First Dog Bo really qualified as a rescue pooch.
Headline: “Obama says D.C. schools not on par with Sidwell.” Subhed: “Daughters’ private education better than public options, he says.” Gist of the piece: When asked on “Today” whether Malia and Sasha “would get the same kind of education at a D.C. public school” as at their high-priced private school, the president … wait for it … asserted they would not.
OMG! The nerve! Time for journalists and professional jabberers everywhere to start trolling for hurt quotes from insulted D.C. educators and public-school parents in an effort not only to rub salt in the current raw flesh surrounding Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s divisive efforts to reform the perennially wretched District schools but also to revive the eternal debate over whether it is immoral for presidents (especially Democratic ones) to send their children to private schools.
Honestly, what did anyone expect Obama to say? Of course D.C. public schools don’t provide the same educational environment as Sidwell Friends. But that’s not a slam on D.C.’s system so much as the reality of extremely selective private schools compared with even extremely good public schools. Hell, I adore the much ballyhooed, nationally ranked Montgomery County school system in which my kids are enrolled. But come on: Sidwell is one of the most elite—and elitist—schools in the country. And, while the eye-popping price tag plays a part (buying such perks as, say, two teachers for each of the school’s two first grade classes), the suggestion that this is all about money is also annoying. Like most elite schools, Sidwell isn’t required to accept anyone (even scholarship kids) with a home life anything other than obsessively geared toward achievement. Yes, there are risks to raising kids inside such hothouses. But there's little question that, if you handpick tiny numbers of highly motivated students (or at least students with highly motivated parents), the vast majority of whom can pay $31,000 for starters (not counting the "suggested" donations all families are asked to contribute based on household wealth), you will wind up with a learning environment that tops even above-average public schools.
If anything, the president struck me as insultingly delicate. “I’ll be blunt with you,” he told the woman who asked the question. “The answer is no, right now.”
No right now? What happy horseshit. Let me be more blunt with you, ma’am: The answer is, “No, not ever.”
And there's not a school chancellor—or a president—in the world who can change that.