The Magazine

The Obama Girls' School Days

The joys of private education.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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I am among those who have never fancied Barack Obama as presidential material. But I share with almost everyone the feeling that the nicest things about the Obamas are their daughters--adorable, charming, happy, and well-brought up. So I was delighted to see the Obama family attacked by a liberal in the New York Times, because I can display my disinterested gallantry--and school spirit--in their defense.

The perpetrator is Sandra Tsing Loh of the Times's online "Education Watch." Despite Loh's interest in education and her superb liberal credentials (contributing editor at the Atlantic and a frequent "performer" on public radio shows), a big education factoid about our most liberal senator had until last week escaped her notice. She learned then that the Obama girls attend the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, of which I am an old boy. Loh's reaction was swift and urgent: "As a rabid public school Democrat, I crumpled in despair at the news." She also announced that, speaking as a Democrat, she is "horrified that Sarah Palin is the one who snagged the deeply profound--and absolutely ignored by professional smart people--emotional real estate of 'P.T.A. mother.' "

Loh's despair is as innocent--and as pure--as her politics. Sarah Palin notwithstanding, Malia and Sasha be damned--Loh really cares only about public schools, and how the Obamas' decision hurts them: "If Mr. and Mrs. Obama--a dynamic, Harvard-educated couple--had chosen public over private school, they could have lifted up not just their one local public school, but a family of schools." Loh has earned her opinion. She not only sends her own child to a Title I public school in Los Angeles but has written a "comic memoir" called Mother on Fire about the process. But does the fact the Obamas disagree with her entitle her to what she calls "huge grief-filled disappointment," which spills over hundreds of words--and drew more than 600 passionate comments in response?

Of course not. You don't have to be a conservative (though it helps) to disapprove of those who would force parents to raise children by political formula. Sending their children to the best school they can afford doesn't make the Obamas, the Bidens, the Clintons, the Gores, or the Tony Blairs selfish. Sending poor Amy Carter to Stevens Elementary in downtown Washington, D.C., didn't make Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter even a bit more saintly. There is no special duty in natural law, Torah, or sharia for parents to "lift up" the public schools, except by paying taxes. And if the private-school parents I mention oppose measures that would extend to others the luxury of school choice for their children, then there is certainly an irony here. It makes their arguments against school choice less persuasive; it ought to (but never does) cost them votes and political support. But irony, however abundant, doesn't turn human politicians into deliberately bad policymakers or wicked parents.

I think that even from Sandra Tsing Loh the Obamas deserve some consideration for their choice of private school. The Lab School and its high school, known as U-High, have a special role in Hyde Park, and a special place in the history of race relations in Chicago. The school has always had snob appeal--during the Depression, my grandmother sacrificed to send my aunt Patricia there (but not my mother, who lacked, Grandmother thought, a certain je ne sais quoi). Yet at the same time the school had a reputation for what would come to be called inclusiveness, but was then thought to be a social disadvantage for its conventionally WASP majority. So Ned Rorem ('40), undoubtedly U-High's greatest composer, observes repeatedly in his wonderful diaries and memoirs--often with repressed bitterness--that his contemporaries called it "Jew-High."