They hate the idea of private schools, but still send their kids to one

Like many parents, a Liberal puts his principles to one side when it comes to giving his children the best start in life.

When President Jimmy Carter assumed office in 1977, he did something remarkable: He enrolled his 9-year-old daughter, Amy, in a predominantly black Washington, D.C., public school. The move was symbolic, a commitment the Democrat from Georgia had made even before securing the presidency. In his presidential-nomination acceptance speech the previous year, Carter criticized “exclusive private schools that allow the children of the political and economic elite to avoid public schools that are considered dangerous or inferior.”

Amy became the first child of a sitting U.S. president to attend a public school since 1906. She still is. When Sasha and Malia Obama moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with their dad, they enrolled in the $40,000-a-year Sidwell Friends—a highly selective Quaker school that also boasts Chelsea Clinton, Julie and Tricia Nixon, and Albert Gore III, among other political progeny, as alumni. Boarding schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy have been another popular option among past presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt. For the many presidents whose kids were adults by the time they assumed office, it’s hard to say where those kids would have attended school as first children had they been younger. But if Clinton’s trajectory is any indication, those presidents probably wouldn’t have taken the Carter route: Even children who had traditionally attended public school—such as Chelsea Clinton—enrolled in private school once their father assumed the presidency.

Scrutinizing where Malia and Chelsea and Amy went to school as first kids is a reminder that even presidents face the kinds of decisions that everyday parents have to make in an increasingly heterogenous school landscape. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s a reminder of the disconnect that often separates public-school classrooms from the people who decide what happens in them: Given how much power the president of the United States wields over the nation’s public schools, it’s noteworthy how few of the country’s 45 commanders-in-chief actually had real, personal stakes in the public-education systems they helped—or will soon help—shape.

Private-school choice is a popular practice among both congressional Republicans and Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of House Republicans and 34 percent of House Democrats have ever sent their children to private school. In the Senate, 53 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats have exercised private-school choice for their children. Thirty five percent of Congressional Black Caucus Members have sent a child to private school.

One in 10 U.S. students in grades preK-12 attends a private school, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Surprised it’s not a higher share?

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the private school share of total enrollments has decreased over the past 15 years, from about 12 percent to 10 percent. This trend seems unlikely to reverse. The U.S. Department of Education projects that in 2021, private schools will enroll about 9 percent of preK-12 students, while public schools will enroll 91 percent.

Boarding School

Even with declining enrollments, Catholic schools are by far the largest private school sector. In 2010, half of the nation’s private elementary school students and three-fourths of its private secondary school students attended Catholic schools. Nonsectarian schools account for the next largest share, comprising one-fifth of private school enrollments at the elementary level, about one-eighth at the secondary level, and one-third among combined elementary-secondary schools.

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