Paul Jacob

Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took full control over his city's long suffering public schools earlier this summer. But he sends his own twin girls to a private school.

Does that make him a hypocrite? Does it make him a bad mayor?

Or, perhaps, just a good father?

Fenty is not alone. Politicians and other erstwhile members of the public school establishment demonstrate their preferences every time they choose to educate their own children outside public schools. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City sent his kids to elite private schools. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa currently enrolls his children in private institutions. A 2003 survey of members of Congress by The Heritage Foundation found that 41 percent of U.S. representatives and 46 percent of U.S. senators now send or have sent at least one of their children to a private school.

This isn't just a matter of the upper crust. A far greater percentage of public school teachers around the country — especially in urban areas such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — send their own kids to private schools than does the general public.

Meanwhile, only 12 percent of U.S. school children are educated privately.

The first public/private schooling decision to receive national hype occured back in 1993, when President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton chose the exclusive Sidwell Friends School rather than a D.C. public school for their then 12-year old daughter Chelsea. They were roundly criticized. Yet, to me, their decision was reassuring, indicating for the first time that Bill and Hillary might actually place something ahead of their own political advantage.

One of the reasons Bill offered was that the private school would allow Chelsea "more control over her destiny." For once, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton and I saw eye to eye — as parents.

Granted, there is rampant hypocrisy at work. These people stump for public schooling, opposing systems of school choice. And yet, they choose to opt out of the system they allegedly shore up . . . from competition. The kind they themselves rely upon.

Years ago, during a campaign for public office, Fenty indeed pledged to send his kids to public schools. So, if voters want to hold that against him, they have every right to do so. But my point is only that had Fenty — or any of these politicians and educators — made the alternative decision, wouldn't that be even worse?

Mayor Fenty's choice boils down to this: Should he put the public schools ahead of his own children? Or should he put his children ahead of the public schools?

Which would you put first?

Shouldn't we seek a world in which education is made to fit the child and not the other way around? Computers and blue jeans and TV programs and fruit smoothies fit the customer. Why not schooling?

We certainly shouldn't force everyone to suffer an equally poor education! And certainly no politician should make his child suffer to benefit his political position.

How did we get to a point where the institution of public schooling could possibly come before the actual education of our kids?

Short answer: We have given up our roles as customers. Oh, sure, we pay the bills. But we don't direct any of the money. That responsibility landed in the laps of self-interested politicians.

Worse yet, politicians have themselves passed the buck, allowing the school biz to be monopolized by the hired hands. The teachers and school workers unions are organized and politically powerful. Parents are not. So the decisions that govern and drive the schools are made by politicians scared of union bosses, not parents.

The impact drives down deep. Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs was on to something earlier this year when he asked

What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good? . . . I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy. . . .

Mayor Fenty is facing this music. His Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (who sends her child to a bilingual public D.C. school) wants to fire a number of unionized employees in the school system's notoriously inefficient central office. But that would mean suspending some of the provisions in the union contracts protecting these workers from actually having to perform to keep their jobs.

To me, and I think to Mayor Fenty, it is a question of cleaning up the mess in the D.C. public schools so that kids might get some benefit out of the billions being spent on their education.

Not so to Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO. She quickly signaled that of course the union will fight for its members over non-dues-paying schoolchildren. She told reporters, "This is a question of political will and political power."


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.