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SIMMONS: Educating the Obama girls

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

OP-ED:

The Obamas in short order will occupy the most expensive public housing in the land and, consequently, will need schools for their daughters –- Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. There are many possibilities in Washington, which has educated Roosevelts and Gores, actors Dave Chappelle and Jeffrey Wright, and talk-radio maven Diane Rehm and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's lone congressional representative. Yet it is unlikely the Obama girls will attend D.C. Public Schools, which don't have much to offer the soon-to-be first family.

In Chicago, Sasha and Malia attend the private University of Chicago Lab School, whose tuition is an estimated $18,500 for a second-grader and $20,200 for a fifth-grader. By all accounts the girls are flourishing. You needn't be a fan of the Obamas to appreciate the difference between good schooling and bad schooling. Most members of Congress do.

For several years, the Heritage Foundation has surveyed members of Congress on whether they send their children to public or private schools. Among the most noteworthy of Heritage's findings regarding the current Congress -- the 110th, from which President-elect Barack Obama recently resigned -- is this: 52 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members and 38 percent of Congressional Hispanic Caucus members sent at least one child to private school. Heritage also found that 37 percent of House members and 45 percent of senators who responded to its survey had sent their children to private school.

While most commentary of late has been hypocritical of the Obamas for exercising choice, the real spotlight should be shone on the lack of choice in public schooling in general and D.C. schools in particular. If the Obamas can afford the tuition for their girls at the Lab School, where, as a University of Chicago employee Michelle Obama received a discount, or at Sidwell Friends (tuition estimated at $28,440 to $29,440) or Georgetown Day ($27,900) in D.C. (or any other private school, for that matter) - God bless them. Much of the criticism hurled their way is rooted in the deadly sin of envy. What of the families who have been cast a less fortunate lot?

The only way many poor D.C. families can exercise choice is by choosing a D.C. charter school or a magnet school (of which there are too few) or by winning a voucher for a private school –- and there are lengthy waiting lists for all three. There is another category of parents who exercise choice, and they do so with their feet by choosing to move to, say, neighboring Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which have school systems that focus on what really counts –- teaching and learning.

D.C. is only now focusing on what matters. Mr. Obama acknowledged as much when, during the campaign, he credited Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee for trying to turn around one of the most ineffective but costly school systems in the nation.

What Mrs. Rhee is up against is no secret. D.C. schools have sat at the bottom of the academic rung for so long (more than two decades) that the sad story is no longer news. What is newsworthy, however, is the fact that Mrs. Rhee is venturing into unchartered territory on two fronts. On one front she is staring down unions by threatening teachers' tenure. That's right. Mrs. Rhee wants the authority to hire, fire and transfer teachers as she sees fit. School chiefs need such authority. Union contracts should not dictate teacher assignments, pay and benefits. (Didn't Big Labor demands sink the Big Three automakers?)

On the other front, Mrs. Rhee understands that she may need the authority to declare a "state of emergency," and that is because D.C. parents and other stakeholders began clamoring for reform long before the Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s. In the years since, another generation of youngsters has been set up to fail (and through no fault of their own). Mrs. Rhee was brought in as a reform agent, not a change agent, and while she has made an occasional misstep, how can you not support a chancellor who looks into every aspect of teaching and learning? (I say a prayer for this sister every now and again.)

The Obamas are not alone. Given choices, the best parents do what's best for their children. Sometimes that means rejecting the status quo outright and sometimes that means lying in bed with union officials but making certain your children steer clear of the soiled linens. Children first, as the saying goes.

The media, meanwhile, should turn its spotlight on the lack of choice for poor parents whose children are trapped in bad schools, not the parents whose pocketbooks are deep enough for them to opt out.

Deborah Simmons is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. dsimmons@washington times.com.