Why is there so much interest in where Barack and Michelle Obama plan to enroll their daughters, Malia Ann and Sasha, in Washington, DC schools? Probably because most observers think that the choice of a school will reveal something meaningful about President-Elect Obama’s views about schooling in the U.S. Is that so? Heck if I know. Up till now, the Obama girls have been attending the University of Chicago Lab School, a private PK-12 school associated with the University of Chicago with annual tuition and fees ranging from $18K-$21K for students in grades 1-12. (Full-time U of C staff are eligible for a 50% tuition remission.) Michelle Obama serves on the Board of Directors of the Lab School, and a couple of skoolboy’s friends, whose children attend the Lab School, say that both Obamas have been visibly involved in the life of the school.
Odds are that the Obamas will send their daughters to a private school in DC. Like most parents, they will likely want to ensure that their children get the best schooling they can. Few parents would be willing to risk sacrificing their children’s futures to make a point about the value of public schooling. We live in an era in which schooling is seen primarily as a vehicle either to move up the social ladder or to maintain the social standing that a family has achieved. As skoolboy’s long-time friend and colleague David Labaree argued in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, two once-prominent goals of American schooling—producing citizens prepared for life in a democracy and efficiently allocating individuals to work roles, both of which view schooling as a public good—have been overtaken by the objective of schooling as a means for vaulting over others, which construes schooling as a private good. This privatization of the purpose of schooling, Labaree argues, has resulted in a commodification of schooling, and a decoupling of genuine learning from the credentials that so many individuals chase after.
skoolboy invited some of his students to envision strategies to strike a new balance among the schooling goals of democratic citizenship, social efficiency and social mobility. One provocative idea was to eliminate private schooling altogether. Doing so, a student argued, would reduce both the temptation and the capacity for members of privileged groups to use their resources to maintain their advantages. Provocative, but not feasible, I thought. Eliminating private schooling would run headlong into other firmly-held American values, such as freedom of religious expression, the separation of church and state, and the importance of choice as a political value. One can, I believe, support public education and also envision a role for private schooling in the U.S.
And yet … skoolboy finds it troubling that in so many communities in the U.S., the most advantaged groups choose to opt out of the public schooling system, turning instead to private schools. I analyzed the association between median family income and the percentage of students enrolled in private schools for the 179 census tracts in Washington, DC that had non-zero family incomes in the 2000 Census. At the census tract level, weighted by the total number of students in grades 1-12 in each tract, the correlation between median family income and percentage of students enrolled in private schools was .90. What this means is that in Washington, our Nation’s capital, lower-income families send their children to public schools, and higher-income families send their children to private schools.
The chart below shows this association graphically. DC Census tracts are divided into four quartiles, defined by their median family incomes. In the lowest quartile, median family income is less than about $30K per year; in the second quartile, median family income is roughly between $30K and $43K per year; in the third quartile, it’s between $43K and about $74K per year; and in the top quartile, the median family income is higher than $74K per year. In the lowest quartile, 5% of the children attend private schools, whereas in the top quartile, 55% of the children attend private schools.
President Obama’s salary of $400,000 per year will place the Obama family unambiguously in the top income quartile in the District. I think the only question here is which private school will Malia Ann and Sasha attend.