[Ed. Note: The following editorial is by former DCPS parent Peter MacPherson]
by Peter MacPherson
I’ve spent many years advocating for public education in the District of Columbia. My 22-year-old daughter spent every day of her 14 years as a primary and secondary school student in DCPS. In all that time, I have personally witnessed the sausage that is DC public education policy being made in the city. Focusing on immediate and hyper-local issues, whether modernizations or individual school budgets, was (and still is) a necessary part of advocacy.
Now, however, from my (still-new) perch as an alum DCPS parent 750 miles away in suburban Chicago, my vantage is much different–and I can see with utter clarity that last fall’s re-election of Muriel Bowser as mayor has only accelerated a precipitous decline in DC public education that began during her first term and extends back to the beginning of mayoral control 12 years ago.
From my new vantage point, it’s clear that mayoral control of DC’s public schools amplifies and exacerbates Bowser’s poor management of DC schools. As long as Bowser runs the schools under the current governance framework, DCPS is going to continue to decline, with accountability for that decline jettisoned or foisted entirely onto students and teachers.
Here’s what delivered me to this painful conclusion:
Mayor Muriel Bowser may not be a great politician, but she is certainly a lucky one. In 2014, after having been dogged by a federal investigation for almost all of his mayoralty, Vincent Gray lost to Bowser in the Democratic primary in a race he likely would have won, save for some public comments made by former U.S. Attorney for DC Ronald Machen.
Last year, given the scandal-racked, education-reform-heavy public school system over which Bowser presides, she should have been swept from office on the basis of the marked decline, on her watch, in the condition of public education in the city.
But for voters to have shown Bowser the curb as a result of her education record would have required a candidate of some stature to run against her.
Obviously, there were no takers–in large measure due to Bowser’s immense campaign war chest (amounting to more than $2.5 million) and her obvious popularity among the city’s business elite. Moreover, to have run successfully against Bowser in 2018 would have required running explicitly on the failure of education reform in DC. That would have meant eschewing wealthy donors (which in DC politics include charter and ed reform advocacy groups) and, crucially, the editorial page of the Washington Post.
Bowser’s lack of an opponent meant that she never had to own the scandals that have beset DCPS and charter schools during her tenure. For instance, she never had to own the problem of grossly inflated high school graduation rates or the Ellington high school residency debacle or a variety of charter school problems, much less have to explain how a vast and well-funded public education apparatus that she controls did not expose, much less prevent, any of that.
While Bowser never came to the defense of Hanseul Kang, her state superintendent of education, when OSSE accused large numbers of Ellington students of attending on a fraudulent basis, Bowser also never apologized to families who were ultimately found to be not guilty of residency fraud. Nor has she ever had to account for grotesque overspending on school modernization projects like Ellington, while other schools have gone without even basic facility upgrades, most pointedly in the poorest wards of the city.
And Bowser never had to appear before the council and testify, under oath, about what she knew and when she knew it relative to former DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson and efforts to place his daughter in Wilson HS outside the lottery. Antwan Wilson said the mayor knew of his daughter’s troubles at Ellington HS and of his family’s desire to find another school for her outside the lottery. He said that the mayor knew of the transfer–and the efforts of former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles to secure it. Last October, the DC inspector general released results of an investigation that partially backed Wilson’s assertion about the mayor’s knowledge of the transfer.
As scandalous as all that is, Bowser’s unfitness to run DC’s schools is perhaps best exemplified in the fate that befell Antwan Wilson’s daughter: The mayor had the girl removed from Wilson HS.
So it was that a child had to pay for the mayor’s political needs.
With the removal of both Jennifer Niles and Antwan Wilson in the ensuing scandal, the city lost two of its top education leaders because of a poorly formulated political calculus the mayor created. But their removal was far easier for Bowser than for her to admit that she had had a role in the child’s transfer.
This–along with the absence of a mayoral opponent–meant that the issue would not be discussed until after the Democratic primary. This also meant that no search for a new chancellor or deputy mayor for education would take place until after the primary as well–a delay that resulted in a needless paucity of candidates and a lawsuit to get the mayor to follow the law.
DC’s governmental structures and political culture show us that an imperious, authoritarian mayor explicitly lacking candor can do enormous damage to the public school system. The supposed corrective mechanisms like elections and council oversight have not mitigated the situation.
And there are significant issues moving forward that require mitigation.
For instance, the mayor very much wants to spend $150 million to move Banneker High School to a new location on the site of the former Shaw Junior High School. The 21st Century School Fund estimates that the existing Banneker building can receive a comprehensive modernization for $70 million. Doubling the cost of the project by building on another site will mean those funds are not available for other projects in the modernization queue. It was only last October that the mayor announced her plan to move Banneker, and the justifications for doing so were (and still are) remarkably thin. Essentially, the main argument the administration offers is that a new building would allow the Banneker program to increase enrollment.
And Bowser and her team are revealing little about their vision for the existing Banneker building. One thing is clear, according to the 21st Century School Fund: The current site on Euclid Street can accommodate several hundred more students than are currently there. The mayor wants to double the cost of the Banneker modernization, and the size of the school itself, without a robust justification for doing so or any public involvement in the decision making. Besides making the project far more costly, changing course in this way would mean that a replacement middle school at Shaw–promised by the city for more than decade–would not be built.
The Shaw situation is most distinctly not good. During the last round of school closings, the receiving school for the closed Shaw, Garnet-Patterson, was itself shut down. In its place DCPS created a more truncated middle grades program at Cardozo High School. The community has not embraced this program, however, and has been agitating for a new Shaw middle school to be constructed on the site of the old Shaw–for which time may be running out.
But as the mayor has demonstrated in her tenure, she appears both unwilling to change course and unwilling to offer plausible reasons for the course she’s chosen, neither of which bode well for either democracy or public school governance. Those who lead the public schools–the chancellor, state superintendent of education, the deputy mayor for education–often preface their public remarks with a nod toward the mayor and the exemplary leadership she is providing relative to public education in DC. DCPS chancellor Lewis Ferebee always manages to integrate the mayor in a positive way in his correspondence with the public. Last week, he stood with Bowser and asserted that the proposed FY20 DCPS budget was adequate for the needs of the system–when the very opposite appears to be true. Antwan Wilson was Bowser’s dutiful subordinate as well. He never contradicted the mayor on any policy matter and was her reliable servant up until the moment she crushed his DC career.
Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that the mayor does not speak honestly about education in the city, and her senior education managers have no independent space to speak with any candor about what the school system needs. They are now merely chess pieces in an ongoing political game. This was not necessarily inevitable with mayoral control of schools–but it is what mayoral control has delivered to DC.
In fact, in the 12 years that the city has had mayoral control of its schools, experienced, high-quality managers have not been at the DCPS central office. It shows in a number of ways:
–the dearth of long-range planning for schools and the poor stewardship of technology and other items purchased during modernizations;
–the astonishingly high rates of principal and teacher turnover; and
–the fact that DC charter schools educate almost half of the city’s kids.
Right now, the number of charter schools is only set to increase, with the charter board currently considering 11 new charter applications, alongside expansions of existing charter schools. It’s hard to imagine how underenrolled DCPS schools will be able to grow, much less survive, given that the mayor’s new budget has them losing significant resources.
Because of Bowser’s win last year and a pliant city council that is supposed to hold her accountable, stakeholders are going to have to continue to claw out their seat at the table. It is not going to be given willingly. Too few people decide too much in the District of Columbia. To get the education system city children deserve is going to require a re-embrace of democracy.
Closer to my current home, Chicago recently elected a new mayor, and during the campaign she endorsed the idea of returning to an elected school board. That’s the kind of a result you can get when there’s a genuinely competitive election.
The tenure of Mayor Bowser has made clear that authoritarian school governance has failed and DCPS is more vulnerable than ever. Absent significant change, it’s hard to see how DCPS will retain even the shadow of a presence in wards 7 and 8. The current budgetary architecture, coupled with the second-term mayor’s loving embrace of charter schools and education reform tenets (including test-heavy school ratings), ensures the eventual demise of DCPS schools of right in many areas outside the wealthiest ones.
Democracy and education fit together, and in DC it’s past time to fight for the return of an elected school board with full accountability. Otherwise, the apartheid-like current public education system will only continue, and District students will lose, with children in the poorest parts of the city forced to attend charter schools in which their parents will have little to no role in governing. An elected school board populated by citizens committed to high-quality public education for all may not be a panacea. But it doesn’t take the long view to know that school system governance by one is vastly inferior to its democratic alternative.