November 11, 2008

School of Choice for Obama Girls?

By Greg Toppo

WASHINGTON -- Great news for the Obamas: If they want to strike a populist note and send their two daughters to a District of Columbia public school, there are lots of choices.

But will they have to get in line like everyone else for the most sought-after schools?

As a candidate, President-elect Barack Obama praised D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee as "a wonderful new superintendent" who is "working very hard with the young mayor there." Rhee, 38, has moved quickly in the 17 months since Mayor Adrian Fenty hired her, firing excess staff and ineffective principals and undertaking a large school consolidation plan.

What if Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, want to follow in the footsteps of Amy Carter, the last presidential child to attend a D.C. public school? Carter attended historic Thaddeus Stevens Elementary, six blocks from the White House.

Hold on a second: It's closed. Rhee shuttered it last winter in the consolidation.

How about a charter school? Obama has championed these publicly funded, privately run schools, bragging that he doubled the number of charters in Illinois.

There's a great charter school just four blocks north of the White House: SAIL, the School for Arts in Learning. But it's for "children with learning differences." There are plenty more choices, though.

In a sense, the Obamas face a dilemma that many upper-middle-class families do in most big cities: Open, egalitarian systems offer lots of school choices -- but the best ones fill up fast (and admission each fall is by lottery if applicants outnumber slots). Still, few can match the offerings of pricey private schools.

Mary Lord, a member of D.C.'s State Board of Education, suggests several neighborhood schools, including Strong John Thomson Elementary, just seven blocks from the White House (it houses a Chinese language immersion program); Ross Elementary, about a mile north; and Oyster Bilingual School, a Spanish immersion school.

"My advice: Check it out," she says. "Go put your nose in there. Walk in the door."

It's unlikely the Obamas will choose a charter school, but if they do, says Brian Jones of the city's Public Charter School Board, the first family would have to tread lightly to avoid the impression that they "inappropriately jumped the line" to score two slots.

This year, 1,900 D.C. kids attend private schools with a congressional voucher that faces the chopping block. What if the Obama girls go the private school route, as many predict? Would President Obama soften his stance against it? Jones hopes so: "I'd love to see President Obama stand up and support the D.C. voucher law so that low-income kids in the city could have that same opportunity."

On Monday, Michelle Obama flew to Washington ahead of her husband and visited the private Georgetown Day School. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>