The District of Columbia has been at center stage in the nation’s battles over education reform over the past few years. The take-no-prisoners model of exiting schools chief Michelle Rhee made her a celebrity -- and the September defeat of her patron Adrian Fenty bewildered pretty much everyone who doesn’t actually live in the region.
With Rhee out, Kaya Henderson in (for now), and Vincent Gray so far offering few details on what direction his education policy will take, it’s easy to overlook the D.C. State Board of Education. It was established in 2007 as part of the reform law that gave Fenty control of the schools, and it lacks the power of the pre-Fenty Board of Education.
Still, the SBOE is more than a mere advisory body. It has to sign off on academic standards and graduation requirements, and has authority over No Child Left Behind compliance. As its name indicates, it functions as if D.C. were a state -- which was useful in the District’s successful bid to win $75 million in federal “Race to the Top” funds in August.
The SBOE has nine elected members -- one from each ward, plus one elected at-large. Four of the nonpartisan elections are on the ballot next week. Ward 3 member Laura Slover is unopposed, while Ward 5’s Mark Jones is expected to defeat Republican activist Darlene Glymph. Two other contests are closer, and cast a light on the education reform debate in D.C.
In Ward 1, government relations consultant Patrick Mara has been running a spirited race against incumbent Dotti Love Wade. Mara defeated longtime D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz in a 2008 Republican primary, but lost that fall. He has a better shot at victory next week, especially with the Washington Post endorsing him over the incumbent.
“Many voters see the SBOE as a ceremonial position,” Mara told me. “However, I will maintain the seat to be a forceful advocate for forward-looking education reform.”
He is certainly running hard -- he’s been going door to door in the ward for the past five months, and has appeared at countless public events. Wade, who declined to comment for this article, has been less visible.
“I am everywhere and she hangs up signs,” Mara said. “I’ve been to forums this cycle where my opponent never showed. My opponent -- a very nice woman -- does not have the sense of urgency that is necessary to improving D.C. public schools.” According to Mara, Rhee has said Wade never sought to meet with her during her two years on the SBOE, while Mara, who currently holds no office, has met with Rhee several times.
Mara says he was “disappointed” by Rhee’s exit, “but not surprised. Chairman Gray and Chancellor Rhee did not see eye-to-eye on several issues and the departure of Rhee was a mutual decision.” Mara says he will “continue to support sustainable and aggressive school reform,” and “will cry foul if we go off path.”
Since Mara has run for Council in the past, some speculate he may be gearing up to do so again, with the SBOE as a launching pad. He says that’s not the case.
“In Ward 1, SBOE representatives in the past sought the position as a springboard for higher office, while others served as a rubber stamp for the Ward 1 councilmember. A State Board of Education member should be an engaging forceful advocate for children and families.”
In Ward 6, SBOE member Lisa Raymond is not seeking another term. She has endorsed nonprofit housing finance professional Monica Warren-Jones, as have the Post and several current and past councilmembers and SBOE members.
Warren-Jones, who has two children in D.C. schools, told me, “My family has benefited greatly from a public school education here in the ward, and my husband and I are very grateful for that. But I also know that our experience is not consistent with many of my fellow residents across the city.”
She says “much improvement is still needed to ensure that every child in our public and public charter schools have the best possible school environments, including outstanding principals, effective teachers, supportive school cultures, and high quality curricula that challenge them and prepare them for success.”
Warren-Jones concedes that the SBOE has less authority than the pre-reform Board, but says it “can continue to have a positive impact on public education in the District.” Her “central issue is to address how as a policy making body, the board can develop and implement policies that allow all D.C. public and public charter schools to become first and competitive choices.”
Like Mara, Warren-Jones said she is “disappointed” that Rhee is leaving, but sees a good sign for the future in Gray’s selection of Henderson, which she calls evidence “that our new mayor-elect is equally committed to reforms” as was Fenty.
Mara anticipates victory on Tuesday, while Warren-Jones is a bit more cautious.
"I would like to think I have a good shot but ultimately, that decision is up to the voters,” she said. “I am humbled by the support I have received to date for my campaign.”
Warren-Jones’s opponent, public relations consultant Melissa Rohan, did not speak with me for this article.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC