Chelsea's schooling pits the politician and the parent


December 02, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Bill Clinton's got a big problem. Bigger than the deficit. And potentially more explosive.

Where will our new president send his 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, the light of his life, to school? Public school or private?

You don't have to ask why that matters. His decision will be an early and important test of the man, the father, the president, the politician. It may not be a test he can win.

This is about messages. Bill and Hillary Clinton are longtime vocal supporters of public schools. Bill Clinton has made education reform a centerpiece of his political life, Hillary a centerpiece of her private one. If these two turn their politically correct backs on public schools, who will be left?

The very unconfirmed rumor is that they will turn their backs -- that Chelsea, who attended a public school in Little Rock, is headed to Sidwell Friends School, an excellent, old-line private institution that is nearly as ritzy as the schools to which the Gores send their kids.

Would that be so wrong? Which is more important -- a political message or your kid? Certainly, you don't fight battles with children. We learned that during one of the crusades. But ask yourself this: Can you serve your politics and your child simultaneously?

One of the things about being elected president is that, when you move to D.C., you know where you're going to live. You've seen the house. Imagine the ad: Designer perfect, move-in condition, eat-in kitchen, Lincoln Room, bowling alley, more bathrooms than the Capital Centre.

But the neighborhood? That's another question. The president doesn't get to look in the suburbs. He must live in the district, a distinctly urban environment, with many of the all-too-familiar, attendant problems. And although I'm guessing the Clintons won't have any difficulty getting garbage picked up or having snow removed, they do have the school dilemma.

We've seen how many resolve that question. They take the first light rail out of town. What began as white flight has been followed by middle-class black flight. This is not simply a racial issue, although it would be disingenuous to say that race hasn't played an important role. But, in the simplest terms, crime and education have been the twin forces that have pushed people out of cities.

Among the wealthier who stay, many send their kids to private schools. Kurt Schmoke sends his daughter to Roland Park Country School. What kind of message is that to the children of Baltimore?

For Clinton, who must stay, the question is especially difficult. When he visited Washington recently, he and the TV cameramen went out to meet the people. Clinton loves to get out among 'em, to press the flesh. And when someone shouted to him that she hoped Chelsea would look at Alice Deal Junior High, Clinton said she would and moved on, to press more flesh, to look more the populist.

If Chelsea goes private, what will Clinton say? What can he say?

Would he say the schools aren't good enough for his child, but they are for most people who live in Washington?

Would he say the schools are too dangerous for his child?

Would he say they don't educate? That they're just caretakers?

What he probably would say is that for security reasons and to make Chelsea's already-too-public life as comfortable as possible, a small school used to celebrity children is the most ideal place.

Can anyone blame him?

Some will. Some will say that Alice Deal has a fine reputation and that certainly, with Secret Service protection, Chelsea couldn't face any danger. They'll point out that Amy Carter went to public schools. They'll say that when the public system is under attack from all sides, this would portray in the most absolute terms Clinton's belief in the future of public schools. And given that Alice Deal is majority minority, it would be a message that whites and blacks can and should go to school together.

This is the bully-pulpit potential we hear so much about. If Chelsea went to public school, might others follow?

And yet. They've had one teacher-furlough day in D.C. this year. Many schools are overcrowded and underfunded. There were six National Merit semifinalists in all D.C. public schools last year (two in Baltimore City) and 20 alone from Sidwell Friends. The Clintons met at Yale Law. If genetics mean anything, Chelsea might be a similar high achiever. Can her needs be met in D.C schools?

What should the Clintons do?

What would you do?

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