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FIELDS: Private and public, separate and unequal
Question of the Day
Nothing dramatizes the two-tier public-education system quite like the announcement by the soon-to-be First Couple that their daughters, 10 and 7, will attend 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 call 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 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, 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 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 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 Nobel Peace Prize, but not with children of the ghetto. 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.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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By Drew Johnson
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