If money were the key to great education, Sasha and Malia Obama might be getting ready to transfer next month to the Francis-Stevens Education Center, the Washington, D.C., public school assigned to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., which will be the girls' new address as of Jan. 20.
The District of Columbia, after all, boasts one of the most amply funded school systems in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the DC public schools spend roughly $13,700 per pupil. That is a level of funding more lavish than in 48 states -- only New Jersey and New York spend more -- and half again as generous as the national per-pupil expenditure of $9,150. And even that may be understating it: When all sources of funding for K-12 education are accounted for, notes Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute's Center for Education Freedom, the real per-pupil costs of the D.C. public schools is $24,600.
But bigger budgets, alas, don't guarantee educational excellence. Its abundant spending notwithstanding, D.C.'s public school system ranks among the worst in the nation.
"In reading and math, the District's public school students score at the bottom among 11 major city school systems, even when poor children are compared only with other poor children," The Washington Post reported last year. According to the authoritative National Assessment of Education Progress, only one in seven fourth-graders is ranked at grade-level ("proficient") or better in reading and math. Among eighth-graders, only one in eight is proficient in reading; only one in 12 can handle eighth-grade math.
So to no one's surprise, the Obama girls will not be attending public school in Washington. Barack and Michelle Obama have decided to enroll their daughters in Sidwell Friends School, the same private academy that Chelsea Clinton attended when she was First Daughter in the 1990s.
The president-elect has taken a bit of heat for rejecting public education for Sasha and Malia. Critics point out that Obama cast himself as a staunch supporter of public schools during the presidential campaign. "We need to fix and improve our public schools," he told the NAACP convention in July, "not throw our hands up and walk away from them." When Time magazine asked the candidates whether parents should be given vouchers to enable them to send their children to better schools, Obama's reply was adamant: "No. I believe that public education in America should foster innovation and provide students with varied, high-quality learning opportunities."
Now in fairness to the Obamas, an ideological commitment to public schools hardly obliges them to send their kids to one -- especially when the local school system is as wretched as Washington, D.C.'s. The Obamas' first and deepest responsibility is to their daughters; to have enrolled the girls in the District's failing public system just to make a political point would have been appallingly irresponsible.
Artist's rendering of the Sidwell Friends middle school campus in Washington, D.C.
Not every school can be a Sidwell Friends, but every school ought to have something Sidwell Friends benefits from every day. Money isn't the root of Sidwell Friends' success. Neither is the size of its classes, or its well-appointed facilities, or its loyal alumni. Sidwell Friends thrives because it has competition -- and DC's public schools stagnate because they don't. Public education is essentially a monopoly, and monopolies tend to be expensive, unimaginative, and largely indifferent to their customers' satisfaction. Private and parochial schools, by contrast, cannot succeed if they lose the goodwill and confidence of the parents who choose them to educate their children.
The DC school system spends $13,700 per student, and most of those students can't even read or do simple math. Imagine what would happen if that money were channeled to parents instead, through vouchers that would let them freely choose their kids' schools. Imagine the energy and innovation and diversity such competition would beget. Imagine the accountability and excellence it could lead to. Imagine the improvement in the lives of Washington's children. Imagine -- 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education -- achieving educational equality at last.
Public education doesn't have to be a lethargic and mediocre monopoly. Let vouchers stimulate competition, and American education would be revolutionized. If that isn't change worth believing in, Mr. Obama, what is?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)