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Carter was an anomaly for a reason: A high-profile politician with a demanding, erratic schedule would understandably opt to place his or her kids in a more secure and customized education environment. That’s especially true in this day and age, when the ubiquity of Facebook and iPhones means first kids face extreme levels of public exposure. “In the past, news outfits have been mostly respectful of presidential kids,” wrote Newsweek’s Suzanne Smalley soon after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. “But that may be different in the age of freewheeling blogs looking to make a splash.” Contemporary first ladies, from Jackie Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, have been known to exchange tips on how to raise children in the White House, with much of the advice centering on how to protect their kids’ privacy. In fact, the Obamas reportedly considered Washington, D.C., public schools and consulted with district officials before deciding on Sidwell Friends, supposedly after concluding that the private school would be able to provide the special accommodations they needed.
As Joshua Kendall, the author of First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama told me, attending a public school would inherently subject a first kid to “public spotlight.” After consulting with Jackie Kennedy, for example, Hillary Clinton “really put an emphasis on protecting Chelsea, and the Obamas have of course been very protective of their daughters. Certainly the private school has been part of that protectiveness.” A school like Sidwell Friends is well-versed in educating—and sheltering—the children of the political elite.
It’s hard to argue, however, that U.S. president upon U.S. president chose private schooling solely for reasons of safety and privacy—school quality is undoubtedly a factor. Alas, Washington’s public schools have notoriously high dropout rates and low test scores, and they suffer from the range of challenges typically faced by high-poverty urban districts. This reputation is in large part why Washington, D.C., ties with Hawaii for having the lowest public-school attendance rate in the country—just 79 percent of school-age children. Given that, the Obamas, Clintons, Nixons, and so on simply acted as so many savvy, well-off Washington parents do: They exercised their right—and ability—to choose.
“Certainly, the options in Washington are less-than-optimal,” Kendall said. “Presidents like Obama who really value education are kind of split: On the one hand, they value [public] education for all of America’s kids; on the other hand, they feel terrible if they didn’t give their own kids the best education.”
School choice—the idea that families should be able to pick from an array of schooling options—is today one of the most contentious ideas in education. It’s also one of the most politicized. Advocates on one side argue that parents who opt to send their kids to any educational setting aside from the traditional, geographically assigned school are detracting from resources, social capital, and student diversity for public education. The country’s public-school system, they emphasize, was designed precisely to ensure every child had equal opportunity to succeed in life. As highlighted in a 2015 Education Law Center report: “The extent to which wealthier families are more likely to opt out of public education has two important consequences: It increases needs in schools by further concentrating poverty, and it may affect the public and political will necessary to generate fair funding through the state’s finance formula.”