Muriel Bowser’s muddled message about D.C. schools


D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser greets attendees at the SW Wharf project groundbreaking on March 19. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

We know what D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray would do with the city’s public education system if he wins reelection: more of the same. But now that new polls show that D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) is the most serious challenger to Gray in next week’s Democratic mayoral primary, the question is what she would do. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been clear on this score.

Here’s what my Post colleague Aaron C. Davis wrote about Bowser on a list of candidates’ positions on various issues:

For good or bad, Bowser is the only candidate who has boiled down her education platform into a sound bite: “Alice Deal for all.” The council member says middle schools are the urgent and next frontier in education reform, and she would seek to replicate D.C.’s most successful middle school citywide. Bowser says she would begin by making all academic programming equal to that at Deal. When asked in recent months if she would keep Gray school’s chancellor, Kaya Henderson, Bowser, has often deflected the question. Once, in a debate, she responded, “sure,” adding that as mayor, she would be ultimately responsible, not the chancellor, and the city needs to focus on reforms, not personalities. In the final televised debate before the election, Bowser was more circumspect on Henderson: “I haven’t made a decision on her.”

Hmmm. What does Bowser really think? We can’t know from her back and forth responses during the campaign.

If in fact she hasn’t made a decision about Henderson already, it seems fair to wonder why. School reform has been a big topic in the city for years. Henderson has a record in the District — like it or hate it — and it’s hard to believe that Bowser doesn’t have some true opinion of the work she has done. Does she really know what she will do and just isn’t saying it to avoid offending voters?

Bowser was a strong ally of former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who started the current reform era in the city’s schools when he hired Michelle Rhee in 2007. She quit in 2010 when, ironically, Gray beat Fenty in the Democratic primary and she worried that he would replace her or not give her unquestioned power, as Fenty had done. It turned out that Gray tapped Rhee’s deputy, Kaya Henderson, as her successor, and the reform course has been maintained. Bowser has won some important endorsements, including from Emily’s List and The Washington Post‘s editorial board, which has supported Henderson’s reform efforts.

Voters have a right to know what Bower’s vision for public education is — whether it is the current reform program or something else. She really should tell us.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 27