Obama: D.C. schools don't measure up to his daughters' private school

By Nick Anderson and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 27, 2010; 10:54 PM

President Obama reopened Monday what is often a sore subject in Washington, saying that his daughters could not obtain from D.C. public schools the academic experience they receive at the private Sidwell Friends School.

But the city, accustomed to the mantra that its schools need reform, seemed to view the judgment as self-evident.

Obama made his comments on NBC's "Today" show in response to a woman who asked whether Malia and Sasha Obama "would get the same kind of education at a D.C. public school" that they would get at the D.C. private school that has educated generations of the city's elite.

"I'll be blunt with you: The answer is no, right now," Obama said. D.C. public schools "are struggling," he said, but they "have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform. There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system."

Obama said that if he wanted to get his daughters into one of the public schools, "we could probably maneuver to do it." But he said the "broader problem" is that parents without "a bunch of connections" don't have such options.

The caveats may have helped to take the sting out of the first family's assessment of the 45,000-student system.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who recently referred to the primary election loss of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as "devastating" to the city's schools, did not publicly object to Obama's remarks. She has strongly suggested that she might resign rather than work for Fenty's presumptive successor, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

"In terms of the comment from the president, it is a fair assessment," Rhee said. "We have indeed seen good progress over the last few years, but we still have a long way to go before we can say we're providing all children with an excellent education."

Gray also took no apparent offense. "It would be wonderful to have a president who stood up and said, 'I'm going to demonstrate my commitment to public education by placing my children in public education in the city,' but again, you know, we're all parents at the end of the day, and I'm sure he feels like he and his wife are making the best decision for their children at this juncture," Gray said.

At the Francis-Stevens Education Campus on N Street NW, a public school that serves the neighborhood near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., several parents who were picking up their children Monday afternoon took the the president's comments in stride.

"It's just an honest observation," Stephen Richardson, 43, a telecommunications contractor, said as he was buckling his pre-kindergarten son Matthew-Chase, 4,into a car seat. "There are bright spots in the D.C. schools. It's getting better."

"Everybody has their choice of where to send their kids," said Gamel New, 42, a housekeeping supervisor who was walking out of the school with her third-grade daughter Aliyah, 8. Of Sidwell, she said: "That's [Obama's] choice. If I could afford it, I probably would, too."

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