School & District Management

Volatility of D.C. Mayoral Campaign Raises Stakes for City Schools’ Future

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 11, 2014 3 min read
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Just three weeks before the Democratic primary election for mayor, federal prosecutors on Monday said that Washington Mayor Vincent Gray definitely knew about an illegal fundraising scheme that helped propel him into office in 2010 over incumbent Adrian Fenty.

That revelation—which Mayor Gray steadfastly denies—came on the same day that prosecutors announced a plea deal for the Washington businessman at the center of the fundraising scandal that has dogged the mayor for nearly two years. Mayor Gray has been polling well ahead of his Democratic rivals in recent weeks.

This volatile political situation could have major implications for the District of Columbia’s school system, which is controlled by the mayor’s office, and for Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whom Gray tapped as his schools chief after he was elected in 2010. Henderson had been the deputy superintendent under Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor appointed to run the school system when it was first taken over by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Under Henderson’s leadership, the district has moved aggressively to implement the Common Core State Standards and a growing number of students have reached proficiency in reading and math on both the city’s annual exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Still, even with its strong growth in 2013, less than half of all students--48.4 percent--were proficient across both math and reading in both subjects on the city’s common-core aligned tests. And the overall impression of the long-beleaguered public schools remains relatively negative among city residents, according to a Washington Post poll published earlier this year.

With 46,000 students, the district competes directly with a flourishing charter school sector and has long struggled with a 6th grade brain drain when many of the city’s middle-class families leave the system for the suburbs, charters, or private schools. Some parents and advocates believe the district needs to do more to bolster neighborhood schools and to close very wide racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps across the city.

Yesterday’s revelations about Mayor Gray has one education advocate worried that more upheaval could be on the way for a school system that has undergone lots of change since the mayor’s office took over in 2007.

“Continuity is really important,” said Faith Gibson Hubbard, the president of the Ward 5 Council on Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for quality public schools in the Northeast quadrant of Washington. “I can’t say that Chancellor Henderson is doing everything that everyone wants, but I do know that if we have a new person, things will be shaken up again. She’s making good-faith efforts and she’s passionate about what she is doing.”

Ms. Hubbard said she is “definitely worried” about what the wider fallout from the revelations about Gray will be.

Gray has repeatedly said that he strongly supports the chancellor’s improvement agenda and would keep her in place if he wins re-election. Several of his rivals have also pledged support for her, but his most serious primary challenger, Democratic City Councilor Muriel Bowser, has been noncommittal about Henderson.

Bowser recently told Robert McCartney of the Washington Post that she’d make a decision about keeping Henderson on board only after talking to the schools chief about her specific future plans for the school system. One has to wonder though, given Bowser’s close alliance with Fenty, if she’s just being coy because of the campaign. Fenty hired Rhee, who is a good friend and former boss to Henderson.

David Catania, another city councilor who has declared his plans to run for mayor in the November general election as an Independent, has been a persistent critic of Henderson and the school system from his perch as the council’s education committee chairman.

Photo credit: Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson at a 2010 news conference.

--Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.