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

Slightly fewer than half of the students tested in the school, which goes through eighth grade, met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading and math this year. If Sasha and Malia had attended Francis-Stevens, said D.C. State Board of Education member Mary Lord (Ward 2), "we probably would have seen that school get better a whole lot faster."

The back and forth over the merits of Sidwell and the D.C. public schools revived a topic much debated whenever a president has school-age children. Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, was the last White House student to attend a D.C. public school. But Bill Clinton sent his daughter, Chelsea, to Sidwell.

Some D.C. public schools, including the selective citywide magnets School without Walls and Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, have received national recognition. But top private schools and suburban public schools continue to draw many families out of an urban public system long regarded as dysfunctional.

Tuition at Sidwell is more than $31,000 a year, according to the school's Web site.

The Obamas chose to send their daughters there soon after he won the 2008 presidential election. Their much-anticipated decision came after they had considered several private schools and broached the possibility of public schools with city officials.

Some of Obama's critics say it is hypocritical to spend so much money on private school while allowing a federal voucher program in the District to lapse . The city's voucher experiment provides up to $7,500 a year for some low-income D.C. families to enroll their children in private school. The Democratic-led Congress and the Obama administration have rejected requests from voucher supporters to reauthorize the program, and it is being phased out.

Regarding vouchers, Obama administration officials have said that the best federal policy is to support improvements for all schools.

Some observers say that presidential children need to be shielded from public scrutiny and that enrolling in a private school such as Sidwell is one of the most effective ways to do that.

In the interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, Obama was asked for his view on the recently released documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which depicts the challenges of improving urban schools. Obama said it is "heartbreaking" that some parents have to rely on a lottery to get their children into a school they think will meet their needs.

The educational future of children "shouldn't depend on the bounce of a ball," Obama told Lauer, referring to a lottery method. "Our goal is to make all schools high-quality schools."

Staff writers Kevin Sieff and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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