The Obamas' Class Struggle

Public? Private? The always-tough school search is even harder if you're black...not to mention the first family.

Posted:
 

For months before my family left upstate New York for Houston, I lay awake at night worrying about where our oldest child would attend school. Then I'd wake up from my scanty slumber to begin the daily Internet quest for the "perfect" school: one we could afford (tuition-free) that scored well on statewide tests, had just the right racial balance and even served the healthiest lunch. I searched GreatSchools so often that when the site was temporarily shut down for maintenance I thought I'd broken it.

I guess that's why, in addition to being generally thrilled for Michelle Obama, I'm so happy that the self-proclaimed "mom in chief" is getting closer to the peace of mind that comes with finding the right school for her children. I seriously doubt her daughters had to wait on any waiting lists whatsoever, as mine did. But I can still relate to what she's going through. Because in the end, finding the right school is a cathartic moment for any concerned parent, whether they're moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or not.

Most parents struggle with where to send their kids to school. But the decision can be especially agonizing for upwardly mobile black parents. There are worries about low expectations from teachers and peer pressure to value coolness over studiousness. Inevitable accusations of "acting white." Then there's an extra pressure to ensure that your children continue to carry your family forward, rather than erase the gains of the past. And of course, there is the ever-present, if often unreasonable, expectation to lift your whole community along with your nuclear family as you climb.

Earlier this week, Mrs. Obama visited several private schools in the D.C. metro area, including the Georgetown Day School, Sidwell Friends (the Quaker school that Chelsea Clinton attended) and a third, the Maret School. All three are comparable to the University of Chicago Lab Schools (otherwise known as "The Lab") that Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, currently attend.

The Obamas' choice to send their children to private school speaks volumes about their value system. And that an investment in their children's future is the most important one they will ever make. As if Bill Cosby isn't proud enough of them already.

But months before the election, speculation swirled about what type of school the Ivy League-educated power couple would choose for their daughters. Some critics argued that by choosing a public school education, the civic-minded Obamas would make a powerful statement about their faith in the American public education system. Sending Sasha and Malia to public schools, some argued, could reignite a widespread interest in public schools among more educated, middle-class parents.

That's a nice theoretical argument but a tough one to sell in the real world. "Who wants to use their child as a social experiment?" asked M'Balia Singley, a friend I made in the sixth grade when she left private school for our suburban public one. "We are all going to get blamed later anyway, but still, using your kids to make a point about public school education can be a raw deal for the kid. The Yale-educated mother of two continued, "I think anybody who expects two highly educated lawyers, black or white or both, to send their most precious little people to public schools to make liberals or black folk or whomever feel better, needs to really get his/her head examined."

Public school wasn't perfect—but it worked for me. And I'm grateful that my prayers for the "perfect" public school for my child were answered before moving to Texas. But I'd be foolish to suggest that it should work for everyone in every city. Public schools nationwide are foundering, and the D.C. public school system is among the worst in the country. Even at my daughter's constructivist charter school, I have to be visible and involved there on a regular basis. Not exactly a problem considering I don't have weekly meetings with foreign dignitaries. No matter where the Obama girls go to school, Michelle's (and the president's) involvement will be critical.

Any Washington D.C. public school that the Obamas sent their kids to would need much more than the first family lifting it up  in order to  become competitive. And given what's ahead of Barack for the next four (and hopefully eight) years, is it fair for the first family to do more for a school than the school can do for their girls?

Regardless of the Obama's decision, I hope that once it is made, people will let Michelle go about her business as mom-in-chief. Not to mention first lady.

The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM