I agree that it was the economy that doomed the donkeys' midterm election results this past November, but something rang true for me in the descriptions of last week's voters as resentful of Obama's tin ear for the common person. I used to think that claims of Obama's elitism were baloney. As Jon Stewart quipped about "arugula-gate": "He's an elitist! He eats … slightly more bitter green leafy vegetables than I do."
But now, given the comments Obama made on NBC's Today Show while talking about why he and the first lady don't send their children to DC public schools, I'm not so sure. Obama's alleged elitism may not deter his ability to govern, but it does undermine his legitimacy in the face of growing populist sentiment (and not just of the Tea Party), and it further erodes my confidence in his education policies.
I went to DC public schools from the age of four until I walked across the graduation stage at the end of 12th grade. I went on to teach in public schools and I am currently a public school parent. I value my DCPS education, but my experiences there were far from perfect. There were times I pined to go to the Georgetown Day School, or the Field School or even to the public Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School over in the Maryland burbs. From what I know, Sidwell Friends (the private school where Obama sends his daughters) offers amazing academics and extracurricular activities. But I wouldn't trade most of the teachers and coaches I had, nor my friends or even the peers who called me names because of what the color of my skin represented to them. It's all a vital part of my identity, of how I view the world, of how I relate to others. My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell, different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye.
Back in September, when asked on the Today Show if, "Malia and Sasha would get the same kind of education at a DC public school compared to the elite private academy that they're attending now," President Obama responded:
I'll be blunt with you. The answer is no right now. The DC public school systems are struggling. 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 DC system. And that's true, by the way, in every city across the country. There are some great public schools that are on par with any private school in the country. … I'll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But for a mom and a dad who are working hard but who don't have a bunch of connections, don't have a lot of choice in terms of where they live, they should be getting the same quality education for their kids as anybody else, and we don't have that yet.
That sounds like perfectly respectable honesty, except it isn't, not really.
Obama could have cited security concerns as the Clinton's did when they chose Sidwell over my school, Alice Deal Junior High School, for their daughter (although I'm tempted to think that the Secret Service has got bigger problems if they can't secure a junior high school). Obama would have been more honest if he had said, "We understand that a small private school, with a large budget and very restrictive enrollment, is able to do something different than an urban public school could ever do." Or, most candidly, "We want our children to be surrounded by highly motivated, well-behaved, upper-middle class students. Sidwell can offer us that." Instead, the president subtly plugged his own administration's plans for education reform while using the coded language of the urban neoliberal elite.
We believe in public education, and the public schools, but they're not ready for our children, not yet. I hear: "We have passed judgment on the schools, but we use these words to show how the decision was tough, and temporary." Yet, I don't see too many younger siblings of private school students going to public schools. "I want to send my children to public schools, but no one here sends their children to them." No one? Are the buildings empty? I am tempted to ask. But I don't, because I know what they mean: that no one who looks and dresses like us (wink, wink) goes to them. Not enough well-educated, upper-middle class people send their children to them. They value public education in the abstract, but not the schools that are the real choice. To some of those who do send their kids to DCPS or who worked in the system during Michelle Rhee's "Great Leap Forward," Obama's words may sound like coded language for DC public schools got much better once Chancellor Rhee came in and got rid of all that deadweight. Deadweight meaning experienced teachers and administrators, many of them DC natives.
The next rationalization is, "Well, we could have gotten our daughters into one of the 'better schools,' but then we would have been supporting the inequities that exist in the system." Apparently, Francis Stevens, the Obama's neighborhood school, is not among DCPS's "better schools." It's true, for example, that DC's mayor, Adrian Fenty, got his children into Lafayette Elementary in upper Northwest out of boundary, but most people, even those with a "bunch of connections," do what everyone else does when they want to send their child to a school out of bounds: they participate in the lottery. What's more, how is the discomfort in using one's connections to get into a better DCPS school eased by sending one's kids to Sidwell Friends? Is the system that Sidwell exists in somehow less unfair or less a use of one's connections? Is Sidwell part of a more equitable system?
What is this progress in DCPS that Obama refers to? Mass firings, fiscal incompetence, recruitment of unqualified and inexperienced teachers, high teacher turnover, lack of curriculum and pedagogic programs, questionable evaluation tools, disregard for democratic principles, overemphasis on standardized tests, the expansion of charter schools and merit pay for teachers are all part of Rhee's legacy. This set of bankrupt and ideological educational policies was rejected by the majority of voters in DC, but if President Obama and his secretary of education Arne Duncan (who resides in neighboring Arlington, Virginia) have remained such "big fans" of Chancellor Rhee and her reforms, as they have said they have, why wouldn't they have enough confidence in them to send their own children to her schools? Wouldn't it be informative if Obama and Duncan sent their own children to one of the very urban school systems they are so endeavoring to reform, or if they at least sought the same experiences for their children that they are imposing on the rest of the country?
Do they educate according to such policies at the University of Chicago Lab School, where the Obama's once sent their children while Duncan was running Chicago's public schools? Is Obama bringing the great educational principles, which he rightly valued for their role at the Lab School, into his reform of the public school system? In graduate school, I studied the remarkable work of John Dewey and its influences on pedagogy at the University of Chicago Lab Schools, and I would say no, Obama's administration is doing no such thing. How about at Sidwell Friends? I've taught at a Quaker school, and I know people who went to Sidwell, and I'm going to have to say no. Fortunately for their teachers and students, they are not implementing more standardized testing, instituting performance-based pay for teachers or eliminating teachers' unions.
Mr. President, if the public schools aren't good enough for your daughters, fine, just say so. But don't denigrate, with your coded language, the experience of those who choose urban public schools for their children, who want the democratic experience of attending a public school with all sorts of young people, some quite able, some suffering from the ravages of poverty. If the new school reformers' policies, which you and your administration support, are the right ones, why don't you send your own children to the very schools where such policies are being implemented? If that is not possible, why send them to a school that is in many ways the mirror opposite of your revolutionary reforms? Is it possible that the very things that make Sidwell so enticing to you (from their website: "We offer these students a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders") do not apply to children in public schools, and, specifically, inner-city schoolchildren?
Your educational reforms leave interdisciplinary curriculum, creative inquiry and independent thinking by the wayside in the pursuit of higher math and reading scores. Elite kids get to read, find learning fun and relax in moments of quiet reflection, but public school systems, apparently in a crisis, have to drop recess, the arts, science and social studies, not to mention many of their neighborhood schools, in the quixotic quest for higher test scores and school "choice." Are such policies fine for the education of other children, but not your own?
Mr. President, if we should all have your healthcare, as you have said we should, then shouldn't we all have your children's quality education, too? No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Arne Duncan and Bill Gates are not going to get us there, and your choice in where you send your children to school demonstrates that. No Child Left Behind was a nobly intended response to the very real "soft bigotry of low expectations." The problem is that NCLB, and now Race to the Top, won't vanquish that bigotry; rather, they codify it.
Furthermore, your policies expand the target of the bigotry, from the soft bigotry of low expectations on the students, to a hard bigotry of crude expectations on the teachers. Your policies won't bring DCPS any closer to Sidwell, because your policies, your words and your actions suggest that you think that a broad, interesting curriculum along with time for creative reflection are luxuries for the wealthy, whereas the poor need basic reading and math skills and drills.
Do you think that children in public schoools aren't ready for these luxuries? Or are their brains somehow different? Less curious? Less creative? I don't think you believe this. But it seems to me you should at least say that they deserve exactly what your own children have. When you fail that basic test, it makes me think you're just the elitist that your populist critics say you are.