The District’s high-profile efforts to improve public schools have largely failed, said restaurateur Andy Shallal, the first mayoral candidate to challenge the fundamental policies that have driven D.C. education reform under Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty.
“Education reform is just not working in Washington,” Shallal wrote in a white paper released Friday, criticizing the city’s emphasis on using standardized tests to judge educators and schools as a “war on teachers” and a strategy of “intimidation and punishment.”
Gray (D) has highlighted education as a strong point in his campaign for reelection, citing national standardized test results that show the District — while still performing far below average — has made larger gains over the past two years than any state or other large city.
But Shallal — who has made the city’s growing income inequality a central theme of his campaign — (D) argues that the citywide figures mask a large achievement gap between the city’s low-income and affluent students, and between black, Hispanic and white students.
Poor black students in the D.C. school system continue to trail their counterparts in other cities; only 9 percent of those students scored high enough in fourth grade to be considered “proficient” in reading, compared with 78 percent of white students.
“If we keep harping on this idea that the schools are doing great, we are misleading people,” Shallal said in an interview Monday.“We should not be married to an ideology at the expense of our children.”
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said that black students made statistically significant gains in all grades and subject areas on the most recent national exam and that the bottom-performing 10 percent of students made some of the largest gains across the city.
While some of Gray’s challengers have criticized him as moving too slowly on improving middle schools or precipitously in overhauling school boundaries, most have supported the main elements of his education policies.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), for example, said in a policy proposal released last week that he would require every school to have a librarian and teachers for the arts, physical education and music, and he promised stronger after-school programs for all children. But Evans has said he would seek to continue Gray’s policies and would keep Gray’s schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson.
Shallal’s 13-page white paper, the most detailed and confrontational education proposal released by a candidate to date, outlines a different course. Hinting that he would drop the school system’s controversial IMPACT teacher evaluations, he said he would focus on reducing class sizes, developing strong leaders and teachers, broadening the curriculum, establishing wraparound social services for struggling families, expanding summer school programs and extending the city’s early childhood programs to more 3-year-olds.
Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, accused Shallal of “playing with fire” by casting doubt on the city’s education efforts.
“What Andy Shallal wants to do is mess with success, and the only reason he wants to mess with success is an effort to get attention and be elected mayor,” Thies said. “Turning around an education program that was as poor as was the District’s is not going to happen overnight, but it is happening. The progress is clear.”
Shallal’s criticisms of Gray’s education policies made him a crowd favorite at a December mayoral candidates’ forum sponsored by the Washington Teachers’ Union. But it is not clear how widely his ideas will be embraced, particularly in a city where nearly half of its public school students are now enrolled in charter schools.
While many D.C. leaders praise charters as an essential component of the city’s improving education landscape, Shallal describes their growth “helter-skelter” and says it is contributing to the destabilization of neighborhoods.
“Parents don’t fundamentally want choices,” Shallal wrote. “They much prefer quality schools within walking distance from where they live.”
He would seek a moratorium on closing neighborhood schools and would limit the growth of charters, prohibiting them from establishing themselves near to any traditional schools. Shallal also would seek to require charter schools to share more information publicly, including about their executive and teacher salaries.