Parent’s Choice

Several years ago, Adrian Fenty, at the time a member of the Washington, DC City Council, promised the public he would send his twin sons to public school once they reached fourth grade. He wanted to demonstrate his support for public schools in both his political and personal life. He kept his promise and enrolled his sons in public school this fall, but the manner in which he did it has the District of Columbia in a minor uproar.

Rather than enroll his sons in their Crestwood neighborhood school, West Elementary, he enrolled them in the much more coveted Lafayette Elementary School in Chevy Chase. This action isn’t without precedent; former Mayor Marion Barry, the last D.C. mayor to have school-age children, went outside his neighborhood boundaries to enroll his son in northwest D.C. public schools as well.

Moreover, Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s Schools Chancellor, assured the public there are several protocols in place to allow parents to send their children to out-of-boundary schools and that they were followed.

Still, many parents believe the mayor must have circumvented the process to enroll his sons at Lafayette, which according to the Washington Post, “is 72 percent white and 28 percent minority, [and] has a more affluent student body and higher standardized test scores than West, which is 71 percent black.” Lafayette has a waiting list and many are wondering how Fenty’s boys moved ahead of others on the list. The mayor isn’t talking, citing privacy for his family, and Rhee isn’t saying much more than what I indicated above.

This episode strikes me in a couple of ways. First of all, I never condemn parents for making decisions they believe are in their children’s best interests. Just as Barack Obama, an avowed supporter of public schools and the teachers unions, has every right to enroll his girls at Sidwell Friends School, as did his Democratic predecessors in the White House, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Mayor Fenty should do everything in his power to secure for his boys the best possible education.

Moreover, his children are not social engineering subjects or campaign props to be used to advance a public agenda. Like any parent, Mayor Fenty doesn’t want to place his children in substandard public schools in the hope the schools will get better someday. He wants the best for his children today, not at some unspecified point in the future.

When we moved to Calvert County, we purchased a home in Huntingtown because we did our research prior to our move and determined that the elementary and middle school at Plum Point would be excellent schools for our three children. In fact, school quality is the number one criteria for most parents in deciding where to live.

That said, a public official’s personal decisions are usually scrutinized and evaluated against their public pronouncements. Not all parents have the mobility or income to choose where their children attend school, so when politicians exercise their options to ensure their children are placed in the best schools while impeding citizens from making similar choices for themselves, they become annoyed.

Democrats like Fenty are typically hostile to school choice, especially when it comes to vouchers for poor families to send their children to private schools.

Former mayor Anthony Williams, however, took the unprecedented step of establishing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program so poor families could send their children to private or parochial schools. More than 1,700 D.C. students have taken advantage of the program, and the parents are pleased and the children performing better than their peers in D.C. public schools.

When the Democrats in the U.S. Congress did the bidding of the teachers unions and took steps earlier in the year to eliminate the program, some Democrats, Senator Joe Lieberman most notably, spoke up in its defense. Even the D.C. City Council voted to petition Congress to continue the program. Mayor Fenty, however, has been silent, issuing short statements through his spokesperson offering tepid support for the program.

It is against this backdrop that parents and other observers are viewing with some cynicism Fenty’s placement of his sons, who previously attended a private Montessori school, into a highly desired public school. School choice is an issue where Democrats have adopted a not-so-subtle “do as I say, not as I do” approach, as noted by former Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen:

The hypocrisy is palpable. A 2003 Heritage Foundation survey found that, while only 10 percent of American students attend private schools, 41 percent of congressmen and 46 percent of senators responded that they had sent children to private school.

Mayor Fenty is putting the well-being of his children above politics when it comes to their choice of schools. Millions of other parents whose children are trapped in poor public schools want to do the right thing by their children as well, if only the politicians would allow for others what they have for themselves – real choice.