Put Your Kid Where Your Mouth Is?

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 12, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

WASHINGTON. — Until now there had been no designated Chelsea Clinton beat. Just a smattering of occasional items on the life and times of the First Child-elect.

This was due to an unusual conspiracy of decency on the part of the media, and some atavistic memories of what it was like to be 12 years old. If there is anybody out there who looks back on his or her 8th-grade photo with fondness, please raise your hand. You may leave the room.

So last week, when Chelsea landed on Page One of virtually every newspaper in the country, it was a warning shot across the brow of the president's child.

Dear Chelsea: From now on, you aren't a kid, you are a symbol. Every move you make, every breath you take, we'll be watching you. Everything you do will reflect on your parents. Welcome to Washington and have a swell adolescence.

The issue was Chelsea's school, Sidwell Friends. The politician who presented himself as a strong supporter of public schools was a father sending his own daughter to private school. Hypocrisy alert? Waffling alarm?

The Clintons said simply, ''As parents, we believe this decision is best for our daughter at this time in her life, based on our changing circumstances.'' The Washington Post was understanding. The New York Times was disapproving. And USA Today asked its readers to chime in by letter, toll-free telephone or Fax machine.

The disappointment of the public-school parents, teachers and principals was palpable. In this city, the schools have been suffering from a sinking sensation. They have been labeled unstable and mismanaged. The test scores are way below the national norm and the dropout rate way above.

There were many who wanted the Clintons' daughter enrolled as a vote of confidence, a pledge to the future, a magnet to attract middle-class parents in flight. In short a symbol.

What we got instead was one of those uncomfortable ethics seminars that rage among middle- and upper-middle-class parents, especially liberals. Do you put your kids where your mouth is?

I have been in the room any number of times when decisions were made between someone's political beliefs and their parental -- what? -- responsibilities, instincts, protectiveness?

I've been there when a colleague deeply committed to the inner city and also to his 10-year-old decided that two muggings were enough. He took the kid and ran to the suburbs.

I've been there when a strong advocate of child-care centers finally, abashedly, hired a nanny for her own baby. The turnover was too great, the attention too scattered.

I have heard parents who are morally committed to a standard of fairness and equity admit they bought their way out of community problems. A crying child came smack up against a principle.

At other times and in other homes, I have watched parents put their children on the line for what they believe in. But they weren't always sure that was right either.

Push comes to shove at school age. Presidents and other parents want to make the public schools in their cities a place they want to send their kids.

But how to balance what's best for the long run with one single childhood's short run?

The guru of children's issues, Marian Wright Edelman, picked private school for her kids. So did Jesse Jackson. Tens of thousands in the capital and other cities moved to suburbs ''for the schools.'' Others pay for parochial schools and not always for the prayers. NIMBY -- Not in My Back Yard -- becomes Not My Kids.

People may not talk publicly about their unease for the same reason that Bill Clinton -- who overexplains everything -- didn't explain the reason for picking Sidwell Friends.

The ethical conflicts of people with options are a limousine luxury compared to the problems of people without the same options. This disparity is at the heart of the debate about school-choice proposals.

I don't regard Chelsea Clinton's school as Bill Clinton's hypocrisy. She is not a publicly owned child even if she lives in subsidized housing. Her job is not to set educational policy. It's to get educated.

But her father came up against the personal conflict that only happens in a country with a public school system torn by what Jonathan Kozol calls ''savage inequalities.'' This is one parent who can't drop out of the public argument when he opts out of the public school.

There's more at stake than symbolism.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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