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."
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.