November 23, 2008
By Leah Fabel
Even if President Barack Obama’s daughters have opted for the elite Sidwell Friends private school, many well-off Washington-area parents who could afford private schools are opting to keep their kids in the public system.
“Schools don’t get any better when parents pull their kids out,” said Alison Igoe, a Capitol Hill lawyer and mother of a fourth-grader at the District’s Thompson Elementary. “In fact, they can get considerably worse.”
Soaring tuition – even for those in upper income brackets – has caused many families to eschew private options. In traditionally wealthy Montgomery County, public schools saw nearly 900 students enroll from county private schools.
But other wealthy parents around the region hold tight to a fundamental belief in the public system, even as worries about quality linger.
“Public schools are central to everything,” said Christine Hinojosa, mother of an eighth-grader in Prince George’s County Schools.
Hinojosa curates for the University of Maryland’s architecture collection while her husband is an executive for a defense contractor. “I’m not active in the school just for my kid, but so that things make sense across the board,” she said.
Even so, Hinojosa’s family is considering a private high school.
“I’m aware of what’s happening in the system right now – we’re losing money and teachers,” Hinojosa said.
For the Obamas, unique security concerns for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, are likely more prominent than public-system ideals.
But for nonpresidential families, educational consultant Steve Goodman said many of the differences between publics and privates have been erased, and the choice should come down to what feels most comfortable.
“There are some public schools that offer things that they traditionally didn’t do, and there are private schools that simply don’t deliver what they did a generation ago,” Goodman said. He cited Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, ranked top in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
“Perhaps St. Andrew’s Episcopal School doesn’t have the same academic power that public Thomas Jefferson does,” Goodman said. “But that doesn’t mean that for the right student, it’s not the right school.”
In Montgomery County, district officials have attempted to combat growing numbers of low-income and non-English speaking students with programs designed to draw out high-performers.
“It’s a bonus in the public arena,” said Cindy Frank, whose daughter is in the International Baccalaureate program at Kensington’s Albert Einstein High School, where there was a firearm incident last year.
“As a parent, it’s more important than ever to be involved in the public schools,” she said.