Ryan Lewis and his eighth-grade history classmates told their teacher at Big Valley Christian School that they would rather hear the bad news before the good.
And it was bad.
“Unfortunately,” Lewis, 14, remembers her telling them at the start of school one morning earlier this month, “as you guys may have heard on the news, we won’t be going to the White House this year.”
She was referring, of course, to the cancellation of White House tours after Congress and the Obama administration failed to come up with a deal that would offset a series of spending cuts known as the sequester. The White House has said the tours were canceled at the request of the Secret Service, which was facing an unplanned-for budget shortfall. But Republicans have pounced, accusing the Obama administration of cutting short the tours in a cynical effort to publicize the pain of the spending cuts.
Asked why his class is unable to go on the tours, Lewis said, “Since our country is so much in debt, President Obama didn’t want to pay the guard that had to sit there and watch as the tour groups go through.”
At Big Valley, a co-ed pre-K-12 in hardscrabble Modesto, Calif., the trip to Washington D.C. has been an annual rite of passage. Marsha Holbrook, the school’s director of operations, said she begins planning for it just after summer vacation. In order to obtain approval for a White House visit, the school must provide information to its local congressman, including full names of all the students attending, Social Security numbers, and places of birth, and then wait several months to find out if a slot will be available.
“They learn about our history throughout the year. The visit is part of the curriculum,” said Holbrook. “It was an acute disappointment. They were excited to get in.”
Holbrook was speaking from Washington, where she and the students had just returned from Monticello and were trying to figure out what to do in lieu of the canceled White House tour.
“I think it is a crummy deal,” she said. “I think it is unfortunate that the people don’t get to go into the people’s house. It is very exciting for the kids to come to Washington and get a grasp of what their country is all about.”
When it was suggested to Holbrook that perhaps the students were still getting a grasp of what the country is all about—gridlock and petty bickering—she snorted and said, “I’m going to try to not get political.”
Ryan’s father, Fredrick O. Lewis III, said his son had been looking forward to the trip since last year. When he struggled as a seventh grader, his father would encourage him to bear it for just a little while longer, since the next year meant the trip to Washington.
“It’s especially unfair for kids like him, from California,” Lewis said. “The kids that are back East, they can schedule another trip to the White House any time. These kids won’t make it back there for a long time.”
The cancellation of the tours has come at a particularly inopportune time. Schools across the country went on spring break just as the announcement was made, and the news became a cause célèbre on the right, with everyone from Donald Trump to Sean Hannity offering to pay part of the $74,000 weekly cost. A sixth-grade class in Iowa made a video pleading with Obama to reopen the White House, and the clip went viral, with the students traveling to Washington this week as well.
Still, there was some slight consolation for Ryan Lewis and his classmates. In that history class where the bad news was delivered, the teacher had good news as well. A scheduled quiz also was going to be canceled, news that was both a small solace and further proof of the sequester’s indiscriminate ax.