President-elect Bill Clinton announced Tuesday that his 12-year-old daughter, Chelsea, will attend an exclusive private school in northwest Washington, calling the move a “family decision” and not a statement about the city’s troubled public schools.
“They didn’t reject public schools,” George Stephanopoulos, communications director for the Clinton transition, said. “The schools in the District of Columbia and across the country are good schools and Gov. Clinton supports the public school system, as he has throughout his term as governor and will continue as President.”
The question of where Chelsea would go to school has been the subject of intense speculation, partly because of Clinton’s frequent efforts to identify himself with ordinary people and with the cause of education reform. And, while few were willing to criticize the President-elect directly, some suggested that he had passed up an important opportunity to demonstrate the depth of his personal commitment to facing one of the nation’s most difficult domestic problems.
“We are disappointed and feel that this decision is unfortunate,” said Mike Casserly, interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest public urban school systems.
“We respect his and his wife’s responsibilities as parents to do what they believe is in the best interest of their child. But as a President, this decision, however personal, has a symbolic meaning to other parents making similar decisions.”
Clinton supporters, on the other hand, insisted that the step does not tarnish his reputation as an education reformer.
“I don’t think it sends a negative message about public education,” said Bob Chase, vice president of the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest teachers union and a major supporter of Clinton’s presidential candidacy. “His record shows he is a strong supporter of the public schools and I’m sure he won’t back away from his commitment.”
Clinton often has pointed out that his daughter always has attended public schools, seemingly suggesting that this gave him a direct stake in the kind of education reform he has advocated.
“After many family discussions and careful consideration, we have decided that our daughter, Chelsea, will attend the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.,” Clinton said in a prepared statement. “As parents, we believe this decision is best for our daughter at this time in her life, based on our changing circumstances.”
Ignoring the city’s public schools is a well-established tradition among political leaders in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans. Currently, Vice President Dan Quayle, Vice President-elect Al Gore and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, among others, have children enrolled in local private schools.
A Quaker school founded in 1883, Sidwell has a tradition of concern for social issues, as well as racial, religious and social diversity.