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Ask not where Checchi sends his kids

If you were a billionaire, I ask my manicurist, would you send your child to public school?

She looks at me as if I'm crazy, as does everyone else in the room. A few women in the salon laugh out loud.

"Of course not," she says.

"Of course not," California gubernatorial candidate and half-a-billionaire Al Checchi told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle last week when asked whether he would send his children to public school if elected. "Why would I do that?"

His remarks have provoked a storm of controversy, including ringing denunciation from teachers union officials. "This is really far off," said Tommye Hutto, communications manager for the California Teachers Association. The state's 280,000-member teachers union has not yet endorsed a candidate.

Opponents have pounced. Kam Kuwata, who is running the campaign of Rep. Jane Harman, said Checchi's refusal to consider public schools showed that he is out of touch with Californians. "When you're running for governor, you have some sensitivity about this," Kuwata said. "It touches a nerve for a lot of people who have no option."

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More experienced politicians generally try to finesse the issue of what their own children will do by promising to make the choice after the election, as President Clinton did. Jane Harman has two children in a private school in Washington, D.C., but has said that she and her husband will reconsider the question of public schools if she wins the election. But Al Checchi is not an experienced politician; he has promised to call them as he sees them, making a virtue of his weakness. And in this instance, he certainly has.

Where a candidate sends his children to school is no one's business but his and his wife's. It is certainly not mine.

"I am really opposed to what he said," Ben Bushman, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, said. "The bottom line is that Beverly Hills High has everything to offer that a student would need. It's one of the finest high schools in the state, without question."

With all due respect, does Bushman really think he is in a better position to know what is right for the Checchi children than Al and Kathy Checchi? Or does he think that voters should reward candidates who put their own ambitions ahead of their children's interests?

Bad enough to have a parent in politics; at least you should be able to go to the school that is best for you.

Not every child has that choice, of course. Checchi was also criticized by conservatives for not supporting private-school vouchers for the less well-off, which he denounced as a "political trick." It is a fair criticism, but Checchi's position is one that is shared by most Californians, who rejected a referendum that would have provided funds for vouchers for private schools. The referendum did better than expected in urban areas, where many had given up on the public schools and the church was supportive. Meanwhile, it did worse than expected in the conservative suburbs, where there are better public schools that voters want to protect.

"She'd spend all that money on fancy clothes and vacations," someone chimes in, laughing, imagining life as a billionaire instead of a manicurist. She's kidding, of course. Most of us put our children first. Many of us who send our children to private schools are not billionaires like Checchi, but we are doing what we think is best for our children. Dan Lungren, the likely Republican nominee for governor of California, also sent his children to private school. It does not speak well for the public schools that none of the would-be first families send their children to them, but it does not speak poorly for any of the candidates.

"The answer is to fix the public schools," Checchi said. Education is the No. 1 issue in California this year, as it is across the nation. Whether Al Checchi _ or any other candidate _ can fix public education is the question voters, and editors, should be asking, not where he plans to send his children to school.

Creators Syndicate