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First choice: why Chelsea Clinton should attend a public school.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton move to the White House in January, they'll face a personal decision that confronts any relocated family: Where should their child go to school? They're not likely to hear my pitch--that they should send Chelsea to a public school in the metropolitan area--from many of their friends who live in Washington, D.C.

The Gores send their children to private school. So do the Quayles. So does Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. In fact, none of the 67 top education policymakers in the Bush administration sends his or her kids to D.C. public schools. Instead, the Clintons will be hearing well-deserved praise of the academics at the National Cathedral School, of the sincere service ethics of Quaker philosophy at Sidwell Friends School, of the respect for individualism at Georgetown Day School, among others.

Most of the D.C. public schools near the White House may look like unreasonable choices to the Clintons. Chelsea's new neighborhood public school would be Francis Junior High. The students at Francis are thoroughly excited by the prospect of having Chelsea enrolled with them and the Clintons can be sure she would be warmly welcomed there. Academically, Francis is not as strong as Thomas Jefferson Junior High School, which is less than a mile from the White House in Southeast Washington. Jefferson ranks first in the city in math scores for ninth-graders and is the recipient of a million-dollar sponsorship from COMSAT to boost its math and science programs. Unfortunately, Jefferson has virtually no white students. It is one thing for parents to value an integrated environment for their children, as the Clintons have done in sending Chelsea to public schools in Little Rock. It is something else, and less fair to any child, black or white, to put her in a situation where she constitutes such a tiny minority.

Academically as good as Jefferson but more diverse are Deal Junior High School, Hardy Middle School, and Wilson High School, all of which are within two or three miles of the White House. These three schools are integrated, academically strong, and reasonable choices for parents who value public schools but also don't want their child to be a pawn for their beliefs. Chelsea can get a solid public school education without being turned into a martyr.

SATisfaction guaranteed

Recommending public school in Washington, D.C., throws a block that stops most parents in their tracks. Over the years, these are some of the comments I've heard most: "I wouldn't consider it for my children"; "we don't want to sacrifice our children to political principles"; "we bailed out after a few years." From the other side, there is a similar tone: "private school wimps"; "spoiled rich kids"; "no confidence in their own children." When I suggested to editors at The Washington Post an article recommending that Chelsea go to public schools, the response was immediate: "We have zero interest in this idea." It is one of those issues, like the conflict between working and non-working mothers, that most people who are on opposite sides just can't discuss, even with good friends.

What these polarized opinions overlook is that there are reasonable possibilities open to the Clintons. Consider Deal Junior High in Northwest Washington, where of the 950 students in grades seven through nine, half are black, about a quarter white, the remainder mostly Hispanic and Asian. Deal offers six foreign languages: French, Spanish, Latin, Chinese, German, and Russian. Some eighth grade students study with a humanities team that packages English, history, art, and music. There are sports ranging from football to golf to fencing. There is a chorus, a gospel choir, glee club, band, orchestra, ski club, and much more. Hardy Middle School is smaller and therefore has fewer programs than Deal, but its program is strong enough that the Carter family chose to send Amy there. Graduates of both Deal and Hardy eventually move to Woodrow Wilson High School, next door to Deal. Year-in and year-out, Wilson produces National Merit semi-finalists and sends graduates to Ivy League schools.

For the D.C. school system as a whole, security is a problem. In some schools like Eastern High School near RFK stadium, students (but not visitors) must pass through metal detectors and have their bookbags checked. At others, like Hart Junior High in Southeast Washington, a security guard sits with a sign-in register at the front door. The shooting by an outsider at Wilson High School four years ago proved to be an isolated incident rather than an example of frequent violence.

At schools like Hardy, Deal, and Wilson, crime and physical safety are not serious worries. But, because of the spillover from the system-wide watchfulness about security, students even at these schools can't hang around after school if they don't have business there.

Each family makes its decisions about schools based on a variety of complex factors. The Clintons may feel that, on balance, the D.C. public schools are not right for Chelsea. When my family returned from living in Asia, that is how we felt for our children. Our son wanted to continue studying the language he had struggled to learn in Japanese public school, and while the public schools in D.C. didn't offer Japanese, one in Maryland did. The Clintons, no doubt, have complicated factors of their own to balance. But they have the option, which we chose, of staying in the public system by sending Chelsea to public school in Montgomery County. They would be hard-pressed to find better public schools anywhere. The middle schools in Montgomery County feed into some of the best high schools in the nation. Students who live in D.C. can attend schools in Maryland, and students who live in Maryland can go to schools in D.C., if their parents pay the equivalent of the system's per-student annual spending.

Are these suburban public schools just private schools in disguise? That is what many private-school parents seem to think, but you can't believe that if you have spent any time in the schools. Even in an area like Montgomery County, which is wealthy by national standards, the student population is varied in a way unlike private schools. There are physically and mentally disabled children, whom the school is legally obliged to serve. There are children who have just arrived from other parts of the world--Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe--and cannot speak English but whom the school must legally include. There are the chronic "discipline problems." There are students who don't plan to go to college. And yet, the school must accept them. It cannot reject students who are discipline problems or who might bring down the SAT average. This inability to screen the student population makes virtually any public school better reflect America than most private schools. It also means that students must cope with variety and unpredictability. Obviously most suburban schools can escape the problems of crime and poverty that overwhelm much of the D.C. system, but they are still "public" in a meaningful way. And if "tuition" is to be spent by the Clintons, why not spend it on a public school?

Curriculum vital

From a purely political perspective, selecting a public school for their daughter would be a sure, swift, and positive step for the Clintons. It would send the message that they firmly believe in public education and are committed to improving it. At the same time, it would provide a boost of confidence to public school teachers and administrators across the nation. It would also avoid a terrible symbolic problem. If Chelsea winds up in a private school, it would take Newt Gingrich about five minutes to point out that "Bill Clinton wants to deny poor people the right to choose private schools for their children, even though that's what he has chosen himself." The logic might not be perfect, but the symbolism would hurt.

Of course, the Clintons' decision has to involve more than political calculation. Like other parents, they have to think first about what is best for their daughter. They have demonstrated that they are a strong, solid family and that they respect each other and their unity. They know that Chelsea will be spending six to eight hours a day, for at least the next four years of her life, in one of these schools being shaped by its values and environment. She will follow her studies, make her friends, form her teen-age impressions about American life in that school. There are strong reasons why a public school should be in the running, not only because it might be good for their daughter and good for their family, but excellent for the nation.

How so? First, sending their daughter to public school would allow the Clintons to do something that is clearly very important to all of them--stay connected with the American people. They are connected in Arkansas, where Chelsea attends public school; they stayed connected during the campaign, through their bus tours and town meetings. Public school would be consistent and fitting with their life, and it would be one of the few avenues left open to them to maintain their real-world connections.

The connection that public school offers is compelling: Children bring home to their parents the concerns facing the schools, large and small, from classroom incidents to system-wide issues. They bring home their impressions of friends and classmates, their families, and teachers--the sense of the community of the school they attend. The problems facing our nation's schools would be brought directly into the living quarters of the White House on the first day Chelsea had one of Washington D.C.'s teacher-furlough holidays.

The principle would apply even if she went to the suburban schools, because these schools are also grappling with the basic issues of how America educates its children. In the face of budget cuts in the past few years, Montgomery County schools have eliminated cost of living pay-raises for teachers and cut athletic expenditures and most all-day kindergarten programs. The county has continuing debates about eliminating class periods, increasing class size, and reducing support staff. The Clintons don't have to be connected to the most troubled school system to be connected to the public-school predicament as a whole.

Second, parents and educators alike know that one of the important ways schools either stay good or get better is through parental involvement. We can all say we are concerned about America's public education. Even Dan Quayle bragged about his public school background when he got the chance. But as busy people, we all know that we care with our hearts more deeply and act with our hands, our time, and our wallets in the schools to which we have entrusted our own children. This is only human, and it is as true of the Clintons as it is of my next door neighbors. As first parents, the Clintons have an enormous opportunity to influence their own daughter's school, as well as set the example for America's parents.

Realistically, we all know that Chelsea will receive the best of whichever school they choose-- the best teachers, the best classes. The Clintons, especially Hillary, with her interest and experience in education unleashed, can push for some of the best for the rest of America's children along the way. She can do everything from talking about caring for schools to promoting curriculum changes (like more foreign language study), to insisting on teaching standards and rewards for teaching excellence, to raising student performance standards, to encouraging better textbooks, athletic programs, and more student public service, to addressing issues of "values" which are increasingly wedging their way into academic life.

Chelsea Clinton herself will take with her to whatever school she attends a sense of specialness. It will be "the school where the President's daughter goes." She will be all right, and her school will be all right, just because she goes there. What is exciting is the message this could carry to the rest of the schools in the nation. This is a chance, perhaps, to build a Peace Corps-like zeal about public schools. They are at a good enough starting point, there is good raw material to work with, and there is a good chance for improvement.
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Title Annotation:President-elect Bill Clinton's daughter
Author:Fallows, Debarah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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