Little Rock, Ark. -- Bill and Hillary Clinton yesterday chose t send their 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, to a private school, a politically charged decision that provoked more understanding than outcry.
Chelsea, who currently attends public school in Little Rock, will enter the eighth grade at $10,700-a-year Sidwell Friends School in the District of Columbia. It was the only school the family visited, although others, private and public, were "considered," according to a spokesman.
It was bound to be one of the most sensitive choices facing the first-family-in-waiting. President-elect Clinton has long been an advocate of public schools, and education reform was a principal plank in his campaign platform.
He had strongly opposed President Bush's proposal to offer a system of vouchers that would enable parents to choose between public or private schools.
The school decision, the focus of Washington gossip since the election, was taken "after many family discussions and careful consideration," said a statement from the Clintons. "As parents, we believe this decision is best for our daughter at this time in her life based on our changing circumstances."
The Sidwell Friends School was founded in 1883. Of its 1,030 students, 17 percent are black, 7 percent Asian and 3 percent Latino.
Chelsea is the first child to move into the White House since Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter brought their daughter, Amy, there in 1977. She attended district public schools: Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School and Rose Lee Hardy Middle School. Amy Carter was the first child of a president to attend public school since Theodore Roosevelt's 11-year-old son, Quentin, in 1904.
George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton transition spokesman, said Sidwell Friends was chosen because of its "academically challenging environment" and its insistence on public service as part of the core curriculum. Mr. Clinton has spoken of "a new covenant" between government and the governed, which would involve much wider public service.
Security was not a consideration. Chelsea would have Secret Service protection wherever she went, Mr. Stephanopoulos said.
"Chelsea was deeply involved in the decision-making process," he added. "They all talked it over as a family."
He disputed that there was any anti-public school symbolism in the decision, saying: "The American people know well that Governor Clinton is committed to public education in this country, and is committed to reforming the system, making it the best public education system in the world.
"They also know that families have to make right decisions for themselves, and this is what they have done here."
Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, whose two children attended the private National Cathedral School in Washington, said she "respected" the Clinton decision.
"Although I believe the District of Columbia's public school system is equally challenging, as a mother I understand the family's decision to act in the best interests of their child," she said.
Similar understanding came from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which represent thousands of public school teachers. "We feel that where Chelsea goes to school is not as important as where Bill Clinton takes American education," said Charmayne Marsh, the federation's assistant director for public affairs. "We have a lot of confidence in Bill Clinton's commitment to American education."