Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes an opinion column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.
As giddy students and nervous parents begin the new school year in D.C. on Monday, it’s the perfect time to deliver report cards on Mayor Muriel Bowser, the elected official in charge of our public schools.
Spoiler: There are no A’s. By many accounts, the mayor’s 2017-2018 school year was a failure.
"Scandal after scandal" is how Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, described it to a gathering of educators earlier this summer.
First, reports by WAMU-FM and NPR revealed that school officials inflated graduation rates by passing students who had barely attended school. Then, Bowser’s handpicked schools chancellor Antwan Wilson was forced to resign for skirting a lottery system to place his daughter into her preferred high school. Finally, nearly a third of the students at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts were found to not be D.C. residents, which meant the system was tolerating residency fraud.
The FBI is investigating the inflated diploma process to see whether principals were forced to graduate students under pressure from higher-ups. But in grading Bowser, parents, activists, teachers and students who I polled rarely mentioned the scandals. They graded her on leadership – or lack of same.
Thanks to a 2007 law proposed by Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty, the District mayor controls the schools. The buck stops at Bowser’s desk. She gives herself good grades.
Last week, the mayor announced small but steady gains in reading and math scores for public school students, according to the latest standardized results. Bowser said the results show "our students are rising to meet the high expectations we’ve set for them." She skipped over the fact that the achievement gap in math widened.
Scores and statistics can cut both ways. The 2018 Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 71 percent of DC fourth-graders scored below proficient reading levels, and 79 percent of eighth-graders lacked proficiency in math, "far below the national average for these indicators."
Graded for matters under her direct control, Bowser came up short.
Choosing a chancellor: F. If the mayor’s most important test is choosing and keeping a chancellor, she flunked. She contended with former chancellor Kaya Henderson, who left a year before completing her term. She promised to choose the next chancellor in a transparent process, but community members of her search committee felt blindsided by her choice of Antwan Wilson in November 2016. Less than a year and half later, Wilson resigned under a cloud without leaving much of an imprint. Jennifer Niles, another Bowser pick, also resigned her post of deputy mayor for education for her role in the Wilson scandal.
As a result, Bowser has left the public school system rudderless at the top while she undertakes another search for another chancellor. Worse, many think the mayor has failed to fill the leadership vacuum from the executive office.
"Our families want to know the mayor’s particular vision for education," said Maya Martin, longtime founder and executive director of Parents Amplifying Voices In Education (PAVE). "What’s the goal? What’s her vision for a transformative system that will educate every child well, regardless of ward or ZIP code."
Bowser’s lack of leadership is exacerbated by a lack of urgency, according to Ruth Wattenberg, who represents Ward 3 on the advisory school board.
"If you are in charge of the system that educates all of our children, you have to act with a sense of urgency," says Wattenberg. "She hasn’t."
Funding: B: Bowser’s budgets have increased funding for the District’s public schools, but advocates say they had to badger her into raising per-pupil funding to levels they believed were necessary to raise achievement levels.
Graduation Rates: D: After trumpeting double-digit increases in graduation rates over the past few years, Bowser has to take responsibility for the system that pushed kids through without attending classes or learning the fundamentals of reading and math. She stiffened her back and vetoed a Council bill that would have allowed seniors with poor attendance to graduate, but she hasn’t fixed the system.
Advocates for public charter schools gripe that Bowser has fallen short in transferring vacant public buildings so they can house their growing student population. Michael Musante, senior director of government relations with the public charter school advocacy organization FOCUS, said her predecessors each made more than 10 schools available for charters, which use public funds but operate independently from D.C. public schools.
“We have no buildings,” Musante said, despite Bowser’s assertions that she’s given over three.
Mary Levy, who has devoted her considerable expertise to deciphering D.C. school budgets, gave Bowser average grades. "She’s reactive," said Levy. Pointing to the graduation scandal, she said: "The mayor doesn’t know it first, and even when she does, she tries to ignore it."
But Levy and other observers say the D.C. Council has not exactly earned stellar grades when it comes to running the schools. On the Council’s principal responsibility – oversight – the Council and education committee chair David Grosso got failing grades.
"We were all hoping the Council would do a good job at holding the school system accountable," Levy said. "That didn’t happen." She and other advocates credit Grosso with supporting D.C. schools as part of the city’s "social safety net," but in his role in following the money: "There’s no budget transparency. It’s just awful. No one tracks it."
Even Council Chair Phil Mendelson, speaking at candidate forums, has been openly critical of Grosso’s spotty record in oversight, putting him on Bowser's level with a solid C.
As for Mendelson, who often says the District’s public education system is paramount in solving urban ills, his grade has to be Incomplete. He’s deferred to both Bowser and Grosso in delivering quality education in safe schools. He’s also hinted that he’s itching to exercise more control.
"Knowing what Phil knows," Mary Levy asks, "What’s he going to do?"
But the answer to Bowser’s grade on the first day of the new school year is a solid C. Like the students who missed class and still expected to graduate, the mayor suffers from a low attendance record for time spent on public education.
"People are waiting for our leaders to come together and coalesce around a clear vision for public education," said parent advocate Maya Martin. "Articulate something we can react to. What’s the end goal? The time is right to set a clear direction for the system, now, before we hire a new chancellor and deputy mayor for education."
It would be a great way for Bowser – and Mendelson and Grosso – to up their grades.
Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.