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Where Will Malia Ann and Sasha Obama Go to School?

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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.

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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.

28 Comments

I think the take-away is that those who can afford to escape the system will often choose to do so. This despite the fact that DC schools have over $20k a year in resources available to spend.
Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the current state of the public education system in DC.

We should not assume that families living in DC are representative of all high-income families in terms of their preference for private schools. It's important to differentiate between families living in a low-income city, with sub-par schools (that may also be dangerous) and families living in the suburbs.

In my experience, many upper income families will happily choose public schools - so long as the public schools are of high quality. It's no surprise that people living in a city with dangerous, under-performing public schools would often be hesitant to send their children to such schools, if they have other options. This doesn't mean that well-off parents are against public schools in general, though - why do you think housing prices depend so much on the home's school district?

I recall seeing a piece on kids in the White House just last night speaking about how Jimmy Carter's daughter went to public school...

As with any parent, it's a choice, and it's a private choice. One I hope we all allow them the privacy and decency to make without judgement. They will do, as every parent does, what they feel is best for their two girls and not what they feel the American people wish they would do.

As you know, when Bill Clinton was elected he and Hillary Clinton faced a similar decision about their daughter, Chelsea. At the time, I was an editor at your parent publication, Education Week. We didn't want to do the same story everyone else was doing, in which people would speculate with little actual information. So we instead did an interview with the headmaster of Gonzaga, where Dan Quayle's son attended when Quayle was vice president. One advantage, from the parents' standpoint, is that a private school is just that: private, and the children can be shielded from public view more than in a public school.

One interesting sidenote: Tucker Quayle was on the lacrosse team, and when the team traveled he sometimes changed his number with another student, to keep the press off guard.

Bob:

I trust that you understand that this post really has very little to do with what school Malia Ann and Sasha Obama wind up attending. These young ladies are entitled to their privacy, and I hope that the press and others respect that right as their parents move under an ever more intense spotlight. On the other hand, there are relatively few actions taken by a President that are not subject to public scrutiny, and the choice of a President about where to send his children to school does seem in the realm of public discussion.

I recall the question coming up in the early Democratic candidate debates. I thought that Hillary did a good job explaining their choice to for Chelsea to attend Sidwell Friends rather than a preferred public--and it had to do with the uniquenesses of being the child of a public figure and the impact on the school of secret service and press.

I don't exactly recall Barack's answer except that part of it was "come on, there are plenty of ways for the daughters of a Senator to get into a good public school..." The reality is that we have public and private schools in this country that have enormouse qualitative differences--along with many differences in approach. While I am a parent who chose to stick it out in an urban district, rather than sacrifice to move to the 'burbs (and have a great appreciation for certain intangibles that my kids have received because of that choice), I know that this kind of ideology can only go so far. In the end my daughter graduated from a charter school (and might not have graduated had that not been an option)--and my son my yet. I can say that I held out longer than either the current superintendent or the past school board president--who both chose private education when their children reached high school.

I would love to see the Obamas back up Barack's support for Michelle Rhee by sending his girls to school in DC, as I would have loved to see the Palins try to wrestle appropriate services for Trig from that system. DC schools have long been a national embarrassment, when they could be a national model.

But these beautiful little girls are going to have their lives changed in ways that a puppy can never compensate. If the family decides to hire Bill Cosby to home school them at the White House, leave them be.

I agree with the other posters that, in addition to school quality, the children of a president must content with privacy and security issues that are probably better handled at a private school. I would find no fault with Obama's decision to place the children in a well-respected private school, if that is his choice.

I would love to see the same comparison for NYC schools.

eduwonkette and I did this last year for NYC: see here.

I'm rooting for Oyster Bilingual School, where one of my kids goes. It's public, it's excellent, and it's where DC's new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee's daughters go. But the Obamas should - and I'm certain they will - do what's best for Malia and Sasha. Shocking thought: they could go to different schools. My twins do -

This is much more a security question than it is and indictment of the D.C. school system.
Anyone see Along Came A Spider? I hope the press gives them their privacy.

GoBama: http://tinyurl.com/2008Bama

I don't begrudge elected officials who send their kids to private schools -- as long as they are committed to providing the same sorts of conditions in the public school system.

Unfortunately, here in NYC we have a Mayor and a Chancellor who both sent their kids to elite private schools where class sizes were 15 or less -- and yet they continue argue against reducing class sizes in the NYC public schools. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.

I have always been a staunch advocate of public schools, but when it came to my own sons, I went for the best schools I could find, and yes, afford. To me, that is human nature, but it doesn't necessarily make it "right."

One son went to a private high school while the other got into a public magnet school for "gifted" students. I put the word "gifted" in quotes because as a teacher I know the word often means "privileged." The son who went to the select public school got a better education than the one who went to the private school. However, each school was the "best" I could find for each child. My older son has a disability (Type I diabetes) and needed the protection of the small, private school, or so we thought. Frankly I was afraid that the public school kids would assault him.

It's best to confront the reality that well-off parents will exercise their options. In this way we can find ways of giving ALL families options. Personally I'd like to see PUBLIC school choice, so that poor kids can choose to go to school in the suburbs if they wish. I also support the idea of private schools giving as many scholarships as they can. Public schools in urban areas such as Washington,DC, need to offer as many options as possible. No parent should be forced to send his child to a school that he perceives as unsafe or "failing."

The Obamas need to do what all parents should do: Get the best possible education for their children. Perhaps that might be a classroom in the White House.

Public schooling is a symptom of the perverse belief in political solutions. Of course the results of government schooling are going to be haves and have nots.

I wrote about this topic last year using St. Louis Co. districts after Eduwonkette wrote about New York. I found that income was only one factor. At least in St. Louis, regional differences were at least as good a predictor as income. (Quality of district was not a good predictor.)

The jump between the highest and the 2nd highest private school rates in median income quartiles seems surprisingly large. Are private schools all expensive in D.C. or is there a range? They are quite the bargain here.

Yes, Beth. Amy Carter arrived in DC in 1977 and went to a 17,000 sq ft Hardy Middle School, enrollment 200, across the street from $125,000 rowhouses and adjacent to a park. Once an almost entirely white neighborhood ES enrollment, over 50% of her classmates were Black, the great majority commuting from cross town, because half of the in-boundry 5th graders bail out of the feeder public schools.

The Obama children will likely NOT be going to the private Lab School of Washington (LSW) which will be confused with the U Chicago- associated school they attend now. LSW is a pioneer school for children learning disabilities.

I wish that skoolboy had reported the regression, and not just shown it, because the correlation over census tracts isn't really the point. Had he been able to classify tracts by schooling attainment of householder, the regression would have been stronger. The regression of private/public on income is also stronger for grades 6-12, because early elementary education has long been easier to deliver well. When children are old enough that their teachers begin to express more content knowledge in school lessons than parents remember (--especially of science and math--) from their own schooling, many bail out if they can. There may be fewer than 600 white students enrolled in all of DC's public high schools. This results in a striking misunderstanding of achievement in DC public schools of the last 40 years: The appearance of children falling behind is largely due to the fact the most successful portion of the student population takes their higher test scores elsewhere. So, longitudinal study of the students who remain might always have shown that they learned at a much better than appreciated pace, and that their teachers were doing better than appreciated, too.

No, the Obama kids are not going to be in DC public schools, not any of the charters either. The more interesting story, that will be written about eventually will be on the relationship or distance between the Obamas and the black aristocracy centered around Howard University. Before taking offense, look at the distribution of Federal funds that go to TBCU within that group of schools.

EduDiva:

For the census tracts in St. Louis City in 2000, the weighted correlation between median family income and the % attending private schools is .79. I calculated the correlation for the 173 census tracts in St. Louis County to be a bit lower -- .57.

Please, skoolboy, start posting the regressions, if you are going to insist on the correlations. A city in which the ecological correlation is high and in which the percent attending publics varies between the 10th and 90th percentiles of mean tract income by 30% is very different from a city in which the correlation is weaker, but in which participation in public schools by those living in half of the highest income tracts is nil.

Pres-Elect Obama owes it to the unions to send his kids to public school. The teachers really backed him. It shouldn't be "Do as I say." It should be "Do as I do." It would show that he supports public education. That's what he led us to believe.

Most likely they will attend Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea went. Other choices -- Georgetown Day, National Cathedral. A wild card would be Edmund Burke, due to its liberal, experiential, reputation. Sort of like the Lab School.

One other thing -- Obamas, don't go to the public schools to make a dumb statement. We all know they're bad. Trust me. I teach in DC. Stay away.

Why would you expect anything else? People with no money can't spend it on education, so only the rich can afford private schools. The rich actually pay double, their taxes pay for the public schools, and their disposable incomes pay for the private schools. They are actually paying both to send their kids to private school and to send other people's kids to public school.

People seem to forget this simple fact: The people with the money wind up paying for everything, even when it is "free".

I thought others might be interested in information on the Chicago public school that the Obama's choose not to send their daughters to:

http://research.cps.k12.il.us/resweb/SchoolProfile?unit=5580

Looking at these profiles, it is hard to blame them for choosing University of Chicago Lab, but we should also recognize that if all the well situated families in Hyde Park attended public schools the pressure for improvement would be huge.

"...(I)f all the well situated families in Hyde Park attended public schools the pressure for improvement would be huge."

No. The US "state" (by NCES definition) with the highest NAEP 8th grade Math mean score (children of college-educated white parents) is Washington, DC. The public school bureaucracy knows better than to mess with a lawyer's kid. If all children of wealthy parents enroll in the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel's schools (the "public" schools), ability-grouped (i.e., income-segregated) G/T classes and elite merit-based (i.e., income-segregated) magnet schools will proliferate.

Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents.

It does not take 12 years to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).


Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery. The largest cost of the US State-monopoly school system is the opportunity cost to poor and minority children of the time they serve as window-dressing in the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel's wretched schools. In the US, "public education" has become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded construction and supply contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination. If this is not so, why cannot any child take, at any age, and exit exam (the GED will do) and apply the taxpayers' age 6-18 education subsidy toward post-secondary tuition at any VA-approved post-secondary institution or toward a wage subsidy at any qualified (say, has filed W-2 forms on at least three adult employees for at least the previous four years) private sector employer?

"if all the well situated families in Hyde Park attended public schools the pressure for improvement would be huge."

That statement presupposes that parents can have a meaningful impact on the way a public school is run. Unfortunately, today that's rarely the case. The real power lies with bureaucrats hundreds of miles away in the state capitol or thousands of miles away in D.C.

One can, I believe, support public education and also envision a role for private schooling in the U.S.

Whew. Nice to know that support for public schooling doesn't require one to be a totalitarian.

It doesn't matter if DC schools are poor on average. The Obamas should only care about the one school where they intend to send their daughters. This is true of DCPS or public charters as well as private schools.

I would understand if the Obamas selected a private school, but would like to see them try a public one (DCPS or charter). It would send a powerful message to middle class families who are considering sending their children to public schools in DC. I decided to send my son to a DC charter school. It will benefit me if other middle class taxpaying families do as well.

Skoolboy--thanks for doing the St. Louis correlations. The city corr being so high makes sense since the district is so awful.

While I found that the quality of a district nor the the median income couldn't predict the private school rate for an individual district in the county, it would make sense that the overall rate still somewhat correlated with income since private schools do cost money.

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