Clintons were right to pick private school for Chelsea


January 08, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Will Bill and Hillary Clinton's decision to send their daughter to a private school hurt the cause of public education in America?

Yes, it will.

Have you heard much outcry about it?

No, you haven't.

And you are not likely to. That's because few parents, given the means, would have done any differently.

Which is a sign of how far our public schools have deteriorated. People barely raise an eyebrow when parents opt out of them.

And, in the end, that is how Bill and Hillary acted: as parents, not as the future president and first lady.

A few weeks ago, Kurt Schmoke found himself at the same dinner table as Clinton at a party in Washington.

They chatted about several things, but Schmoke regretted not being able to get Clinton aside to talk about one private matter.

"I wanted to talk to him about Chelsea," Schmoke said in a recent interview, "and how I thought he should make a parental decision and not any kind of symbolic statement."

Schmoke and his wife made a similar decision last year when they switched their daughter from a public school to a private one.

"I am willing to make some sacrifices for my public life," Schmoke said, "but it is not fair to ask your children to."

The Clintons came to the same conclusion.

Personally, I believe public schools are the backbone of America. Which explains why America has had such poor posture lately.

I are a public school graduate.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I am a public school graduate.

I went to inner-city schools on the south side of Chicago and later became an education reporter in that city and so got to see the problem from both ends:

The school system was a gigantic bureaucracy constantly enmeshed in political and union squabbles.

It gobbled up millions of tax dollars, but couldn't provide enough textbooks for the kids.

In some neighborhoods, the schools were good.

But these were almost always neighborhoods where the parents played an extremely active role.

In neighborhoods where the parents did not have the means or the time or the political sophistication to do battle year after year, the schools got shortchanged.

l And as the middle class began opting out of the public schools (theupper class having done so long ago), the schools slid into a deeper decline.

Teachers saw the problem from a different perspective: If parents didn't demand that the kids do homework or instill in their kids a sense that education was important, what could the schools do on their own?

Then came the issue that was the real crusher: school safety.

It doesn't matter if your child is in a terrific public school learning Japanese and particle physics if the school is not safe.

If you fear your kid has a good chance of getting shot in the lunchroom, you are going to pull him out of that school if you can.

There are good public schools in America and lousy private ones.

And the record shows that the Clintons made their decision on a case-by-case basis:

In Little Rock, Chelsea went to a public school. In Washington, she will go to a private school.

The Clintons obviously feel she will get a better education, have a better chance of leading a semi-normal life and be safer there.

(Chelsea will get Secret Service protection even at her private school. At a public school, however, the school authorities might have been grateful for the extra firepower.)

I believe the Clintons, as public and political people, would sacrifice almost anything in order to send the "right" message to the public.

But when it came right down to it, they were not willing to sacrifice their daughter in order to deliver a message.

Chelsea would not have gotten a terrible education at a public school.

But she will get a better one, her parents believe, at a private school.

I don't blame them for making that decision.

But what do we tell all those parents who can't afford to make the same one?

I guess we tell them this:

Bill Clinton has promised to make life in America better. But he never promised to make it fair.

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