When President Jimmy Carter assumed office in 1977, he did something remarkable: He enrolled his 9-year-old daughter, Amy, in a predominantly black Washington, D.C., public school. The move was symbolic, a commitment the Democrat from Georgia had made even before securing the presidency. In his presidential-nomination acceptance speech the previous year, Carter criticized “exclusive private schools that allow the children of the political and economic elite to avoid public schools that are considered dangerous or inferior.”
Amy became the first child of a sitting U.S. president to attend a public school since 1906. She still is. When Sasha and Malia Obama moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with their dad, they enrolled in the $40,000-a-year Sidwell Friends—a highly selective Quaker school that also boasts Chelsea Clinton, Julie and Tricia Nixon, and Albert Gore III, among other political progeny, as alumni. Boarding schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy have been another popular option among past presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt. For the many presidents whose kids were adults by the time they assumed office, it’s hard to say where those kids would have attended school as first children had they been younger. But if Clinton’s trajectory is any indication, those presidents probably wouldn’t have taken the Carter route: Even children who had traditionally attended public school—such as Chelsea Clinton—enrolled in private school once their father assumed the presidency.
Scrutinizing where Malia and Chelsea and Amy went to school as first kids is a reminder that even presidents face the kinds of decisions that everyday parents have to make in an increasingly heterogenous school landscape. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s a reminder of the disconnect that often separates public-school classrooms from the people who decide what happens in them: Given how much power the president of the United States wields over the nation’s public schools, it’s noteworthy how few of the country’s soon-to-be 45 commanders-in-chief actually had real, personal stakes in the public-education systems they helped—or will soon help—shape.
I was thinking about the implications of this disconnect the other day after reading an article in The 74 that recounted a visit that the Republican presidential nominee made to New York City’s P.S. 70 in the late 1990s. Donald Trump—whose five children all attend(ed) private schools—was invited to the public school as part of a New York nonprofit’s “Principal for a Day” program. After arriving in a limousine, Trump reportedly offered to buy a select group of children Nike sneakers and used a tissue to protect his hand from making contact with the school stairwell railing. Before he left, just two hours later, he allegedly presented the school with a fake $2 million check, later taking it back and giving it only $200. These are just a few of Trump’s various faux pas recalled by people who witnessed the visit.
“The thing that it really left me with was that this man had absolutely no clue about education,” David MacEnulty, who ran P.S. 70’s chess program at the time, told The 74. “He certainly had no clue where he was and who he was working with, and I just got the impression that this is a guy who shoots from the hip and whatever’s on his mind at the moment is what’s going to come out. I’d like for somebody to be a little more thoughtful.” (A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Trump hardly serves as a typical example of how that disconnect manifests itself in (aspiring) politicians, but the anecdote does demonstrate that public education isn’t something one can fix or improve or influence by throwing money at it and showing face. Rather, fixing and improving and influencing public education requires insight into and experience with public education—the kind of raw understanding that’s part and parcel of being a public-school teacher, a public-school student, a public-school parent.
“It can be difficult to understand the real needs of public schools when you are disconnected from [them],” said Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of the advocacy group Parents for Public Schools, which was founded in the early 1990s in response to the “white flight” that was afflicting Mississippi’s public-school districts. “For many folks, the belief is that you need to be in the system to understand the system, and to impact change within the system.”
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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.”
Those on the other side of the school-choice aisle, including Trump, have a different take: It’s a parent’s right to shop for schools and to choose the one that most aligns with their needs and expectations. School-choice proponents contend that traditional public schools won’t be able to improve absent the competition and innovation fostered by private and public charter schools. (Clinton, now the Democratic nominee for president, falls somewhere in the middle when it comes to school choice.)
As a teenager, I myself attended a private school—Punahou, coincidentally the same institution that Obama graduated from in 1979—largely because my parents, I later learned, wanted me to develop the “lifelong connections that only a place like Punahou could provide.” I’m extremely grateful that my parents sacrificed tens of thousands of dollars to send me there, and the incredible friends and teachers I met there undoubtedly helped me get where I am today, but when I returned to Hawaii after college to work as an education reporter, my Punahou diploma started to weigh on me. I started to scrutinize Hawaii’s private-school obsession and its impact on the public-school system.
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When it comes to presidents—and legislators and superintendents and school-board members, for that matter—some argue that the school-choice question takes on a different, more significant meaning. While the power that presidents hold over public education manifests itself in many ways, expanding and shrinking from term to term, it’s never insignificant. The federal government’s contributions to schools’ budgets mean that the president’s and Congress members’ priorities often trickle into and influence what happens in classrooms. In recent presidencies, that trickle may have felt more like a tsunami.
What’s more, that influence may even seem like it exists in an elite echo chamber. According to a Heritage Foundation survey, members of Congress are more than twice as likely to have attended private school than a member of the general public has; the same survey also found that 44 percent of U.S. senators and 38 percent of U.S. representatives have at one point enrolled a child in private school.
That’s not to say that a congressional leader’s or president’s own parenting decisions unequivocally shape their political ones, however. “What really matters to us are the policies that they espouse, and I don’t know whether that’s certainly dependent on where they send their kids to school,” said Tom Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association and its research arm, the Center for Public Education. It’s not like having kids who attend private school means the president lives in a private-school bubble, Gentzel noted. He pointed out that politicians—including those who author significant education laws, such as the new Every Student Succeeds Act—work closely with all kinds of people intimately involved in public schools. For example, he added, a president has typically had a long career in politics, starting as, say, a state legislator, then as a U.S. representative, and so on. “In those roles, they tend to be in and out of public schools a lot,” Gentzel said. “They have a lot of interaction with constituents who have a direct interest in [public] education. I think that has [a bigger role] in shaping their views on public education … It’s the history that led them to that place that probably has greater influence. Those are the things that leave a fingerprint on policy more than anything else.”
But not being a public-school parent still amounts to a detachment, Cushinberry argued—a rift that can translate into a chasm between the president’s proposals and what U.S. schools expect, what those schools’ day-to-day realities are, and what the children who rely on those schools to succeed need. In reflecting on his decision to send Amy to a Washington, D.C., public school, Carter reportedly said: “I derived useful information from Amy as she described her experience in the public schools. What would improve the lunch program? How could we help the children who could not speak English? Were the students being immunized against contagious diseases? What was being done to challenge the bright students in the class or to give extra help to the slow ones? Some of these were the normal questions of interest to any family, but we were in a unique position to act on the ideas.” No other recent president enjoyed the kind of insight Carter gained from being in that unique position.
“It speaks volumes to the public—and also enhances the credibility of our president and other leaders—when they put trust in public schools, when they also [personally] invest in public schools,” Cushinberry said. “When you have a child there, then you have a vested interest in making sure those schools have what they need.”
Kendall, the First Dads author, suggested that the credibility factor may be particularly true for Democrats, who have traditionally championed public education more than Republicans. “That protectiveness”—the inclination toward a place like Sidwell Friends—“does fly in the face of what these Democrats really stand for,” he said, noting that Theodore Roosevelt sent his son Quentin, who was just 4 when his dad became president, to a Washington public school. This background was reflected in “his eagerness to democratize America … and was a tremendous boost to public education back at the turn of the century.” As was Carter’s decision decades later. Such decisions, Kendall said, “carry a huge symbolic weight.”
Indeed, private schooling comes with a host of more-abstract repercussions. By opting to personally sever themselves from public education, Cushinberry argued, the public servants who shape that education send a disheartening, and enduring, message: Public schools are educational welfare for those who don’t have agency. Carter encapsulated the consequence of this message best in his 1976 acceptance speech. He said that when public officials send their children to private schools, it gives the impression that public schools are dangerous and inferior, which many of them are—largely because they are losing their resources and social capital to private schools.
“It sends the message that there is a better school, and because we have resources, we’re sending our children to that school,” Cushinberry said. “That kind of perspective could mean to the public that this particular politician, this particular leader, is not looking at the overall good—which is really what politicians should be doing.”
Those in power are well aware of that weight—especially those who are at the apex of education policy. Take Arne Duncan, who as the U.S. education secretary was arguably the country’s foremost public-education authority. Asked as part of a 2009 interview with Science magazine where his daughter was attending school at the time and how much that factored into where he decided to live, Duncan said: “She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.” The current education secretary, John King, who for his part lives and sends his daughters to public school in Montgomery County, Maryland, echoed Duncan’s response when I recently asked him a similar question. Of course, Montgomery County, like Arlington, is known for having a relatively strong public-school system.
All that aside, though, analyzing a political leader’s decisions as a parent may prove itself a petty task. As Gentzel noted, as with anything else in Washington, “a lot of the decisions that are made around education policy are driven by money.” From school vouchers to teacher tenure, money largely determines which laws come to fruition—and which ones don’t. “When we’re talking about what experiences a president or a legislator or a public official has, I think a connection to public schools influences their thinking, but I’ll be candid: There are other things that influence their thinking, too,” Gentzel said. “We can’t pretend that influence doesn’t exist.”
Hayley Glatter contributed reporting.