November 13, 2008
What Keeps Barack Obama Up At Night
What is the most important issue facing the Obama family right now?
No, it's not the breed of dog they should bring to the White House (although the leading candidate is good news for animal shelters across the country who will get some free press: rescue dog!)
And it certainly has nothing to do with the drapes in the oval office or whether to team up with Senator McCain and Governor Palin to steal the hope diamond.
The most important issue facing the first-family-elect has to do with where Sasha and Malia...
should go to school.
It is a tricky question, substantively, to be sure. There are two widely renown, elite private schools that most pundits have at the top of the Obama's list: Georgetown Day School and Sidwell Friends School. The Obama girls both currently attend the University of Chicago's Laboratory School, a highly regarded private school in its own right, and it wouldn't be a culture shock for the two of them to transfer to either Georgetown Day or Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea Clinton was enrolled. I doubt either the Obama girls will have trouble getting admission, and their parents can probably foot the ~$30,000 tuition.
But a wild card is in the picture, which makes the choice for the first family difficult not just substantively, but symbolically: Thomson Elementary School, one of the higher achieving elementary schools in the DC Public School system. The school seems to be a beacon in a district that is largely maligned by low test scores and high drop-out rates, although recent reforms under new school Chancellor Michelle Rhee have drawn positive reviews from a number of education reformers.
The substantive issues are relatively straightforward, and they are for the Obamas to decide: where do they think Sasha and Malia will get the best education to prepare them for a successful future? It's the same choice that face so many families across the country, except for two major differences.
The first difference, of course, is that the vast majority of families don't even have the option of sending their kids to $30,000 a year primary schools. If history is any guide, it's likely that the Obama kids will do what many wealthy families do and send Sasha and Malia to either of the private schools, since the last first kid to attend a public school was Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, over 30 years ago.
But the second difference between the Obama family choice and the choice facing most American families is that millions of people are watching their decision. Put simply there are political implications when one chooses to send their kids to an elite private school that is out of reach for mainstream America, and yet tries to understand mainstream America's challenges.
Now I, and many others such as the USA Today editorial board, don't think the Obamas should make the choice for political reasons. But that doesn't mean politics don't exist on this decision. Thomson Elementary serves nearly 300 school children, 69% of whom are from low-income families, and 96% of whom are minorities (40% Hispanic, 34% black, and 22% Asian-American, the remainder white). There is undoubtedly a message sent if Mr. and Mrs. Obama enroll Sasha and Malia there; whether one calls it faith in the American public education system, belief in the American dream, or just good old fashioned seeing-what-your-tax-dollars pay for.