Yesterday, we celebrated presidents, people who have shaped our country in powerful ways. They not only fill the role of head of state and commander in chief, but they have also commonly been fathers, burdened with the typical worries of an American parent. And concerns about their children’s education do not vanish when elected and settled into the White House. As a matter of fact, where a president sends his children to school is often a complicated and controversial decision due to a president’s influential role position. This fall, the White House announced that Barron Trump would begin attending St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, a private school 30 minutes outside of D.C. President Trump’s decision is a reminder that even those who have the power to influence public education often choose a non-public school.
The three photos above represent the only “first kids” in history to attend public school (Left to Right - Quentin Roosevelt, Charlie Taft, and Amy Carter), the most recent being Amy Carter. Later, Amy Carter attended Brown until she was dismissed for her lack of attention to coursework. She now lives in Atlanta and has one son who attends a private school there.
There are many reasons that presidents might send their children to private school once they are in the White House. For example, private schools typically have smaller, more accommodating atmospheres for protection and privacy (as noted by Business Insider). But still, it is no secret that the quality of D.C. public schools suffers in the same way other school districts with concentrated poverty do. When only a few “first kids” have ever attended D.C. public school, it begs the question, “What message does it send to the American public when nearly all presidential children attend private schools?”
Catherine Cushinberry, the executive director of the advocacy group, Parents for Public Schools, admitted to the Atlantic that, “By opting to personally sever themselves from public education, the public servants who shape that education send a disheartening, and enduring, message: Public schools are educational welfare for those who don’t have agency.”
And agency in this context does not only describe the ability to pay for expensive private school. It also includes having the means to live in a school district where there is a good school; the Catch-22 being, of course, that if a neighborhood has good schools, it will also have high property values. Either families pay for quality education through tuition or real estate, and if a family can’t pay, then they’re left behind with the public schools that other people don’t want.
The Atlantic article points out other civil servants who chose a good public school for their children by choosing a good neighborhood. Former U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, stated in a 2009 interview about his daughter’s school: “She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn't want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.”
Duncan described the reality for any family looking for the best education options for their children. Good schools cost families money, either through tuition or a mortgage payment. So, how can we change communities of concentrated poverty where children have been left behind with bad schools? Our research shows that we impact the economic state of these neighborhoods by leveling the education-opportunity playing field in a positive way. By giving educational options to targeted poor communities, poor families will have the agency they lack, and other families will not feel the need to move to other neighborhoods just to get better schools. Want to learn more? Keep reading here.