The period between election night and inauguration is necessarily a time of nervous speculation, both professional and personal. Would the president-elect set aside the recent past and appoint Hillary Clinton to his cabinet? Could Larry Summers overcome his ignominious departure from Harvard and return to public service? The pressing questions were both answered promptly: yes and yes.
But some of the most intense gossip centered not on the future of Barack Obama’s administration, but on his family—what school would his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, attend? This time, the prompt answer was a disappointment: The Obama daughters will attend the $29,442-per-year Sidwell Friends School, alma mater of presidential progeny from Archie Roosevelt to Chelsea Clinton.
As voters gossip about everything from this decision to the breed of the coming presidential puppy, the woeful state of public education in America persists. American children routinely score lower than students in comparable countries in basic math and reading skills. Obama himself has stated, “the question is whether or not ordinary parents, who can’t work the system, are able to get their kids into a decent school.” Yet he chose to send his kids to private school instead of personally supporting the public-school system. Unlike the Clintons, the Obamas didn’t even tour a public alternative. This decision, while understandable, perpetuates the distinction between “ordinary” parents and the powerful elite—and the resulting education gap.
The state of American public schools is far from hopeless as long as we are all willing to take some risks. In the face of massive dysfunction in many school systems, enterprising policymakers, experts, and even students have started to come up with inventive solutions. The rise of charter schools and the popularity of programs like Teach for America, which was started by a Princeton undergraduate, are good examples of this forward thinking.
One of the most ambitious reform efforts is Michelle Rhee’s revamping of the Washington, D.C., public-school system, widely regarded as one of the worst in the nation. The Economist reports that if the district were a state, its test scores would be the lowest in the country. Rhee has taken aggressive steps to change this. Her proposal would increase baseline teacher salaries from around $40,000 to $78,000 a year, and high-performing teachers who were willing to forgo tenure would receive a salary of up to $130,000. A combination of improved efficiency and private donors would cover the increased costs.
This is truly a revolutionary plan: Teacher tenure has seldom been seriously challenged. However, we have reached a point where revolutionary change is needed. The critical lack of effective and enthusiastic teachers is both a crisis and a national disgrace. Making teaching salaries commensurate with other, more lucrative fields will hopefully go a long way toward fixing this. At present, as Ivy League graduates can earn six-figure salaries out of school in offices, not even long summer vacations can make a teacher’s meager paycheck seem enticing to the best candidates.
As education officials toy with the formula on the local level and clamor for large-scale policy changes, it’s important that top politicians lead by example. President-elect Obama’s popularity and political position put him and his wife in a unique position, which carries with it an obligation to support public education personally.
While Obama’s plan for improving education is admirable, his private actions should match his public promises. All the policy initiatives in the world will not fully solve America’s education problem if the rich and powerful are able to flee the public school system into $25,000-a-year private schools. Politicians need to see problems firsthand as parents and PTA members, not by reading statistics. And surely concessions could be made to make a public-school arrangement suitable and safe for both the Obama children and their parents.
If he is to live up to his mantra of change, Obama should lead the way on education reform by personally supporting the public school system and Rhee’s experiment. If others followed his example, we might finally see a change to believe in.
Claire G. Bulger ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.