Would a Mayor Muriel Bowser keep Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the helm of D.C. Public Schools?
Bowser, one of four D.C. Council members challenging incumbent Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in April’s Democratic primary, faced that question twice on Friday during WAMU-FM’s Politics Hour with Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood.
Twice, she didn’t answer one way or the other.
“I think we do have a good chancellor with good ideas. But, like all the departments, I want to make sure that we have a leader that will move urgently and really close the gap for neighborhoods across the District,” Bowser (D-Ward 4) said in response to a question from Nnamdi.
Sherwood pressed her again later in the show. “I have made no commitments to keep Kaya Henderson, and I certainly have made no commitments to get rid of Kaya Henderson,” Bowser said. “I will tell you, I have some principles that are important to me: That we have a chancellor who has a plan for each section of the city, that we have a chancellor who will act urgently and be visible in the community and be the face of school change. And I do value consistency.”
With the notable exception of Gray, who has thrown his wholehearted support behind Henderson, many of the 2014 mayoral candidates have been similarly noncommittal — a sign, perhaps, of how politically dicey it can be to dive into the city’s roiling education debates.
The District’s public school system posted some of the country’s biggest gains on a national standardized test in 2013, Henderson’s leadership and her style of education reform — including her faith in IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system that ties job security and pay to student test scores — remain the subject of much controversy.
Bowser did take a stand on another controversial subject: charter school enrollment policies. She’d like to see charter schools, which currently enroll students from across the city, with lotteries when demand exceeds space — offer admissions preference to neighborhood kids.
While that idea is welcome to many families who live near well-regarded schools, it was rejected last year by a task force that said it would limit the choices of some of the city’s neediest children, who live east of the Anacostia River and travel west each morning to better-performing schools outside of their neighborhoods.
Bowser also said improving middle schools would be a priority of hers if she is elected, citing the anxiety that many parents feel about a shortage of decent post-elementary options. She recently introduced a resolution calling on the city to replicate Northwest Washington’s Alice Deal Middle, an overcrowded and high-performing school, elsewhere in the city.
“What we will set out to do is form a five- to seven-year plan that allows us to replicate Alice Deal across the city,” Bowser said. “I think we’ll need at least an additional five locations.”
It’s not clear how Bowser would go about replicating a school that — as one Politics Hour caller pointed out — is shaped by its location in one of the city’s most affluent areas.
Bowser’s Ward 4 lost its only standalone middle school, MacFarland, when it was closed last June for low enrollment. Bowser said she pushed for MacFarland to remain open as part of Roosevelt High, which is undergoing a major renovation.
“We could have gotten a new high school and also a new middle school all at the same time,” Bowser said. “The chancellor decided not to do that. And I think it was a big mistake to not do that.”