I have to admit that Robert White Jr.’s comments on public education scare me. As WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle pointed out, when the Mayoral candidate was asked during a May 4, 2022 debate as to whether schools should remain under the control of the city’s chief executive, he apparently answered in this way:
“We need a mayor who’s not just going to go to the easy talking points, but who’s going to get in the details. And this mayor has not gotten into the details. And that’s why she doesn’t have a clear understanding of why so many students are leaving our schools. Right now, 30% of elementary school students leave D.C. Public Schools before middle school. There is an urgent problem, and we need a mayor with a sense of urgency on public education.”
Mr. White’s vague answer on this critical issue brought a strong response from current Mayor Muriel Bowser, according to the WAMU reporter:
“D.C. residents want a mayor they can trust. And if your answer shifts depending on which way the wind blows, they can’t trust you with their kids. And the most important thing you have to do as mayor is provide mayoral leadership of the schools. I think it is a seminal issue in this race. And I think what we’ve heard are councilmembers who are equivocating and waffling. I’m straight forward.”
For close observers of the education scene in the nation’s capital, the unified opinion is that we cannot move backward to the time when the D.C. Board of Education ran the public schools. Going to a public school was dangerous then, and there was a distinct lack of pedagogy going on in the classrooms. The buildings were crumbling literally and figuratively. We just cannot allow this to happen after so much progress.
Mayor Bowser has been a supporter of public education reform but has not been as strong as charter school advocates have desired. She has consistently annually raised the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, the baseline money allocated each year to teach a student, but has lagged in her willingness to also increase the per pupil facility allotment. The most glaring weakness of her Administration has been the unwillingness to turn over surplus DCPS facilities to charter schools. While recent previous Mayors Adrien Fenty and Vincent Gray have given buildings in the double digits, I believe that Ms. Bowser has relinquished two. Her almost total avoidance of following the law when it comes to these structures resulted in an End The List Campaign in 2019 that mobilized the charter school community in an effort to force her to do the right thing.
The Mayor has also put pressure on the DC Public Charter School Board not to approve new schools. This is an area where the board has to find a way to stand up to her. Finally, she has been exceedingly slow to nominate replacement members to the PCSB.
Ms. Bowser has also been a steadfast supporter of continued operation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school scholarship plan for low income children living in D.C. A 2017 letter from D.C. Chairman Mendelson to the U.S. Congress to bring an end to the vouchers was opposed by the Mayor, and interestingly, was not signed by Councilmember Robert White.
There is one aspect of Mr. White’s proposed education program with which I strongly agree. I have advocated, as he is doing now, that the Office of the State Superintendent should be independent of the Mayor. I think OSSE should be separated from political pressure. However, although we agree on this one concept, I do not believe that education reform would be in steady hands if he won the upcoming election. Despite her failings in the area of public education which I have documented, Muriel Bowser is my choice for Mayor.