Jaffe Report: With Mayor's Race Looming, Can Bowser Make Education Her Issue?

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.

Mayor Muriel Bowser might be more giddy and excited than any student this week as District public schools open their doors for the new school year.

Last week she beamed as she announced nationwide test results that showed D.C. students across the city were continuing to make progress in math and reading. On Saturday she cut the ribbon on the newly renovated Duke Ellington School for the Arts. On this first Monday of school students walked through the doors of six refurbished buildings, from Lafayette Elementary in Ward 3 to the expanded, all-male Ron Brown College Prep in Ward 7.

Last week’s unveiling of the refurbished Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill had all the makings of a campaign kickoff. Education officials put the best spin on the new data. An adoring crowd applauded in the brand new library. TV cameras recorded the event. Campaign aides surveyed the scene.

“We know that none of these things have happened by accident,” Bowser said, attributing rising scores to a “commitment” to renovated buildings, teacher training and new curriculum.

We will have to wait a few weeks, until mid-September, for Mayor Bowser to formally launch her drive for a second term. Coincidentally, a political consultant tells me that around the same time Ward 7 council member and former mayor Vincent Gray will be huddling over lunch with his closest political advisors to assess his prospects for unseating Bowser.

With the decisive Democratic primary 10 months away, Gray seems to be Bowser’s only serious potential opponent. There was a modicum of speculation that Attorney General Karl Racine might take Bowser on, but his closest advisors tell me he’s relishing a second term rather than a political brawl for mayor.

Vince Gray’s return to the executive office would be a long shot, according to a variety of political observers. He’s motivated mostly by the rage he still feels at losing to Bowser in 2014, which he attributes to federal prosecutors improperly implicating him in a campaign corruption scheme that funneled $650,000 in dirty cash into his 2010 campaign. Prosecutors dropped him from the case – after Bowser knocked him off.

At 74, Gray is well-respected in black wards but mistrusted by white voters who, rightly or wrongly, still associate him with the investigation. An able and dedicated public servant, he would be running on revenge rather than vision.

Even so, Bowser is vulnerable.

“Mayor Bowser has no base, period,” says Chuck Thies, who managed Gray’s 2014 campaign.

Indeed, after three years in office, Bowser has failed to build much of a political machine. In the last round of council races, she backed four incumbents in a town where reelection is the norm. Three lost outright, and her handpicked successor in Ward 4 barely won against a cash poor newcomer.

“I look forward to working with all the councilmembers,” Bowser said after the decimation, but she then proceeded to make an enemy of Council Chair Phil Mendelson and lost a number of crucial votes.

If Gray chooses to run he could attack her for relatively minor ethical lapses and her tendency to be less than transparent on occasion, but none are firing offenses. Voters are more likely to judge Bowser on her record during a time of rising revenues and budget surpluses.

Which brings us back to the basics: public safety and public education.

Bowser inherited police chief Cathy Lanier and school chancellor Kaya Henderson. Both moved on. In appointing Chief Peter Newsham and Chancellor Antwan Wilson, Bowser has her team and full responsibility for safe streets and decent schools.

Public safety is an unsafe political base. No one can predict or control crime rates. Newsham, with 28 years on the force, has the support of street cops, and crime rates are heading south. But homicides could spike any time.

On the other hand, Bowser is in the perfect position to take advantage of a decade of extensive reforms and extraordinary investment in public education.

Her mentor, Adrian Fenty, will go down as the mayor who took control of D.C.’s schools to stop decades of deplorable conditions, in the buildings and classrooms.

Like her or not, Fenty’s school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, took a sledgehammer to an ossified system that had failed to educate generations of African American children. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Rhee in her memoir about reforming D.C. schools.)

Before flaming out in 2010, when Fenty lost reelection to Gray, Rhee introduced testing and data collection for students and forced teachers to accept regular evaluations. Her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over in 2010, ingrained many of the reforms and expanded the instruction day and season.

Test scores began to rise, citywide.

Fenty started investing in new school buildings and athletic fields. Gray continued. Bowser has kept pace. By 2023 DCPS says 98 of the system’s 106 schools will have been rebuilt from scratch or renovated, at a cost of around $6 billion.

Bowser just negotiated a tentative contract with the Washington Teachers Union that’s a clear win-win. Teachers would get a 9 percent salary increase over three years, which would make them the best-paid educators in the region. The contract also continues teacher evaluations, though it gives principals more control of the process.

To be sure, there are parents who are unhappy with the pace of renovation in their local schools, and there are teachers who still cannot succeed in the District. But Bowser – who has not focused her record or her message -- could position herself to be the education mayor.

Catherine Bellinger, who heads the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, gave “kudos to the Mayor, the Chancellor and WTU President Liz Davis” for the new teacher’s contract. And she gave Bowser a boost for the rising test scores thanks to “exceptional investment the District has made in education reform over the past decade.”

Drill down into the rising test scores and you will find that schools in poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River still lag behind their counterparts in more affluent communities.

“No one here is claiming victory,” says D.C.P.S. spokeswoman Michelle Lerner. “The achievement gap is still way too large.”

So is the number of days that students miss school. Bowser told the audience at Watkins that 18,000 D.C. students -- almost one in four – are chronically absent, which means they miss 10 percent or more school days.

“That’s why we are starting Every Day Counts!” the mayor said. The “citywide effort” would focus agencies on getting kids to school.

All well and good, but it will take more than bureaucratic coordination. The problem in some communities is that education doesn’t count at all. It’s neither encouraged nor rewarded. Here’s where Muriel Bowser could make a statement, bring her personal imprint into neighborhoods and change the course of the city’s culture toward schooling: show up in communities once a week or so and walk kids to school. Welcome students into school buildings. Encourage parents to get their children to school and assist those who struggle.

That would count. And it would help her get reelected, as well. 

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