Obama: School Choice For Me, But Not For Thee

President Obama's recent comments about the D.C. Public Schools should raise a few eyebrows.

Yesterday during an education forum on NBC’s Today Show, President Obama was asked why his children are going to a prestigious private school while most D.C. schoolchildren remain stuck in a school system that is, at best, sub-par:

President Obama reopened Monday what is often a sore subject in Washington, saying that his daughters could not obtain from D.C. public schools the academic experience they receive at the private Sidwell Friends School.

But the city, accustomed to the mantra that its schools need reform, seemed to view the judgment as self-evident.

Obama made his comments on NBC’s “Today” show in response to a woman who asked whether Malia and Sasha Obama “would get the same kind of education at a D.C. public school” that they would get at the D.C. private school that has educated generations of the city’s elite.

“I’ll be blunt with you: The answer is no, right now,” Obama said. D.C. public schools “are struggling,” he said, but they “have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform. There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system.”

Even the people in charge of the D.C. schools admit that the President is right:

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who recently referred to the primary election loss of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as “devastating” to the city’s schools, did not publicly object to Obama’s remarks. She has strongly suggested that she might resign rather than work for Fenty’s presumptive successor, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

“In terms of the comment from the president, it is a fair assessment,” Rhee said. “We have indeed seen good progress over the last few years, but we still have a long way to go before we can say we’re providing all children with an excellent education.”

Gray also took no apparent offense. “It would be wonderful to have a president who stood up and said, ‘I’m going to demonstrate my commitment to public education by placing my children in public education in the city,’ but again, you know, we’re all parents at the end of the day, and I’m sure he feels like he and his wife are making the best decision for their children at this juncture,” Gray said.

Now, personally, I have no problem with the fact that the President and his wife chose to send their children to Sidwell Friends rather than a D.C. Public School. Quite honestly, given the choice and the resources, it would be incomprehensible to me for any parent not to choose the superior private school over a public school which not only isn’t up to par, but also may not be safe. The problem is that President Obama apparently thinks that only wealthy people like him should have the opportunity to make that choice:

Most troubling in the Today interview, though, was the President’s failure to even mention school choice - giving parents, not politicians, control of education money — as even a potential means for reforming education.  He did, though, fully embrace his own educational freedom: When asked whether the DC public schools were good enough for his kids, he said no. That’s why they go to private school.

Here’s where we see the injustice of Obama’s  and other like-minded people’s “reform” offerings. Rather than giving real power to the parents and kids public education is supposed to serve, they insist on keeping them subject to the authority of politicians and politically potent special interests. They refuse to let all parents make the same choice the President has made, and they continue to force all Americans to hand huge sums of money over to government schools. Indeed, at the same time the President’s kids were heading off to private school, he was letting die an effective, popular, school-choice program in DC, a program that enabled poor families to make the same kinds of choices the President did.

At the same time that the President’s children were settling into their classes at one of the most prestigious private schools in the D.C. area, the Obama Administration was helping to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school choice program that allowed inner city D.C. kids to attend private schools, including the same private school that Barack Obama’s daughters attend. As one parent of a child who was benefiting from this scholarship program asked last year, why, Mr. President ? :

The only question that I have after watching this is —- if the D.C. Public Schools aren’t  good enough for the President’s children, why are they good enough for the Mercedes Campbells of the world ?

H/T: Jason Pye

FILED UNDER: Education, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tano says:

    “But the city, accustomed to the mantra that its schools need reform, seemed to view the judgment as self-evident.”

    Obviously it is self-evident. That is a very expensive, very exclusive private school. What kind of a moron would you have to be to think it was worse than a public school?

    ‘President Obama apparently thinks that only wealthy people like him should have the opportunity to make that choice:”

    Oh, so you are now in favor of giving every parent in DC the resources necessary to attend Sidwell?

    “They refuse to let all parents make the same choice the President has made,”

    What utter hogwash. Everyone has the same right to make the choices Obama made. He pays his taxes to support DC schools. And he spends his own money to send his kids to private school. Everyone has that right. Of course, not everyone has the money. What is your point here? Are you some communist or something – do you think that it is a great injustice that I, for example, “cannot make the same choice” as Bill Gates when it comes to buying a Rolls Royce? Should the government give me the resources so I can make that same choice?

    The DC Opportunity Scholarship program was a gimmick by the rightwingers who thought that by simply giving some money away to some poor families, they could pretend that they had a sustainable new model for public education – and thus advance their real agenda, the destruction of the public school system. The program was not a feasible model for any large scale reform. And its beneftis seem to have been limited to the psychological realm, and that mainly for parents.


  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Why should it open any eyes? He’s said essentially the same thing before. He’s not responsible for the DC school system so why should he sacrifice his kids on the alter of their incompetence.

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    The Obama Administration is pursuing a policy of expanding charter schools, rather than vouchers, which is is not only the less expensive program but also the program which produces empirically superior results.

  4. Joe,

    I didn’t say he should, merely that his admission that the schools are inferior stands in stark contrast to his opposition to a program that was designed to help at least some students escape from that world. One would think the egalitarian part of the argument would have appealed to the Democrat in him.

  5. mantis says:

    All voucher systems do is make the struggling schools worse, and screw over the kids stuck at them, while sending (some of the) money to new private education companies which will certainly not maintain their quality levels. As soon as the profit margin gets too small at school run by such companies, say goodbye to the well-trained teachers and facility maintenance, etc. It’s a stupid short term solution to a long term problem. We’re not getting rid of public schools, and starving them of resources will only make the problems worse.

    What we need is real instructional reform in our public schools, as that is having the most impact on test scores and retention rates. Throwing more federal money at private schools while ignoring the public schools will only make problems worse, and that’s all the D.C. system is designed to do.

    By the way, do you realize what it would cost the federal government to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to all schoolchildren in the district? Do you realize what it would cost to expand the program nationwide?