Friends in high places

quakersFor public schools in Washington, despite their spending an average of $25,000 per year on each student, the educational results are abysmal. Some people have high hopes for the new chancellor Michelle Rhee but there's a long way to go. So it's not surprising that President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have chosen to enroll their adorable daughters at one of the best private schools in the area: Sidwell Friends. It's the same school that Vice President-elect Joe Biden's grandchildren attend.

Tuition at Sidwell Friends is just a bit more than what taxpayers pay for DC public schools, which has been a major theme of media coverage. But there's a pretty obvious religious ghost in much of the coverage.

Sidwell Friends is, of course, a private religious institution. But most stories, such as this one that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, give only one word -- Quaker -- to describe the religious influence of the school. The first Washington Post story didn't even manage that much description of the local school that Chelsea Clinton attended years ago. The follow-up story for Saturday's paper focused on how the move "rekindled debate over whether a populist president should send his children to elite schools." A Wall Street Journal editorial noted that President-elect Obama does not support school vouchers for those DC residents unable to afford elite private schools.

And while such political discussions are the religion of most mainstream media coverage . . . what about, you know, the religion angle?

Liz Harlan-Ferlo, a Quaker-educated Episcopalian who works as a chaplain at a private school, wrote:

But even though the press is talking about the Obamas' private school choice, few are examining the religious aspect of the school. There's lots of conversation about the price of tuition, but where are the articles about Quaker education?

In the blog post, she describes how her religious education influenced her life.

So it's worth noting a TIME piece that, while puffy, focuses exclusively on Quaker religious education:

From the start, Quaker schools aimed to instill the distinct values of the faith: particularly that the "inner light" inside each person can guide them to divine truth. The early Quakers had no creed to teach or sacrament to unite and distinguish the congregation. Instead they taught a way of life, deeply democratic, severe and simple, that could be sustained only through a faithful home and what they called "a Guarded Education." The goal was both to instruct and protect.

This was especially necessary because the lessons of the faith were often at odds with the mood of the times. "A Simple Faith. A Radical Witness" serves as a kind of Quaker slogan. Back in the days when clergy were princes, Quakers believed in "a priesthood of all believers." In an economy that relied on slavery, Quakers preached mercy, to the point of using schools as command posts for the Underground Railroad. In a Puritan culture that viewed children as evil miniatures corrupted by original sin, Quakers treated them with respect, as Children of Light: no whips, no paddles, no coerced belief. Long before the days of women's suffrage and equal rights crusades, Quakers were unique in integrating women fully into the ministry; the schools were not only coeducational, they focused on equipping girls with all the same spiritual and intellectual apparatus as boys.

Ah yes, the days when Protestant clergy were princes. Still, it's a deeply helpful piece that puts Quaker education in context. It concludes with a look at the Sidwell mission statement. Another good article is this op-ed in the Times (U.K.). It's written from the perspective of a product of Quaker schools who sent his daughter to Sidwell Friends.

So while most of the media have missed the religion angle, there are a couple of pieces for your perusal.

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