Recently elected mayor, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) will take office in a city with a highly stratified — along both racial and socioeconomic lines — public school system that has not seen a redrawing of boundaries in over 40 years.
Education became a focus point of the campaign season after each candidate proposed reforms of the system. During the mayoral campaign, Bowser drew criticism from her main opponent, Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large), the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, for being particularly “uninformed” on educational issues.
Bowser, however, has promised to keep education high on her list of concerns.
“I promised that the values of my campaign would reflect your values,” she said in her victory speech at Howard University on Tuesday. “We believe in education reforms that guarantee every child a fair shot.”
In her campaign platform, Bowser outlined her plans to broaden science, technology, math and engineering education, expand early childhood education and open four new middle schools in her first term. She also proposed to revitalize the D.C. Public Schools system by 2020 by making school budgets more transparent and growing SchoolStat, a system of data-driven instruction.
“It is now an ideal time to focus in a more deliberate way on providing high-quality middle school options for students and parents across the District,” read Bowser’s campaign platform.
D.C. Schools Project Coordinator Grace May (COL ’16) criticized Bowser’s platform for lacking any substantial education reform and only making education a focus as a default.
“Education will be at the heart of any campaign in this city, so if education is considered a central tenant of Bowser’s platform then it is by default, not because she made any significant or bold reform proposal,” May said.
Georgetown University Law Center Professor Richard Roe, who specializes in education policy and supervised the creation of the successful charter school Thurgood Marshall Academy, noted Bowser’s lack of specific policies.
“Few people would disagree with the basic goals she sets out,” Roe said. “However, there are no specifics as to how she thinks these goals should be accomplished in conceptual or mission-descriptive terms. Whether they can be delivered is impossible to tell because there is no comprehensive theory of learning or vision set out.”
Outgoing D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray approved redistricting of DCPS boundaries for the 2015-2016 school year back in August, a move that would change the designated school for thousands of students. At a news conference on Wednesday, Bowser, who has consistently opposed the boundary move, said that there was nothing in the redistricting plan “that can’t be undone or tweaked” after she takes office, according to The Washington Post.
“[The plan] lacks the necessary budgetary and leadership commitments to bring about a truly fair neighborhood school assignment policy,” Bowser said in a statement in August.
Additionally, Bowser promised during her campaign to “increase collaboration” between charter schools and neighborhood public schools, by providing a neighborhood preference for students applying to charter schools.
Adam Barton (COL ‘16), also a D.C. Schools coordinator, shared his qualms about the practical implementation of her plans, pointing particularly to this proposal for collaboration between neighborhood schools and charter schools, which he found worrisome and in need of further funding to meet the District’s needs.
“The biggest game-changer for District students will likely come from Bowser’s call for neighborhood preference in the charter school selection process, given that nearly half of all D.C. students are now educated in charters,” he wrote. “This move in support of the neighborhood schools movement could serve to dramatically alter the demographic makeup of many District schools — both charter and traditional public — necessitating a shift in various school support capacities (ESL services, for example) to meet new demand.”
A major part of Bowser’s campaign was “Deal for All,” in which she wanted to replicate the success of the Alice Deal Middle School, located in the Northwest region of D.C. However, Barton worried that this was too idealistic, since the student body population at the Alice Deal Middle School is not representative of D.C.’s overall student population. Only four percent of students at the Alice Deal Middle School are English language learners and 10 percent are special education students, according to DCPS.
“What Bowser seems to either forget or ignore is that [the Alice Deal Middle School] is located in one of the wealthiest areas in the District, and educates a student body that deviates significantly from the District average,” Barton wrote. “Deal falls well below D.C. public school averages in terms of English language learners, special education students and free and reduced price lunch recipients. I worry about modelling reform efforts on a school that simply does not represent the diversity contained within DCPS,” Roe said.
However, Roe applauded the mayor-elect for supporting D.C. Chancellor of Education Kaya Henderson (SFS ’92, GRD ’07), who was appointed by Gray.
“Bowser supports Chancellor Henderson, who is in my judgment providing effective leadership,” Roe said. “Educational reform and meaningful change is a long term process.”