So, what’s with all the talk about which mayoral candidates would or wouldn’t keep Kaya Henderson? With all due respect, that’s a personnel matter — not an education policy issue.
At-large D.C. Council member David Catania, running as an independent, has resisted pressure to make a definitive statement about whether he would retain the D.C. Public Schools chancellor if he wins the Nov. 4 general election. Democratic Party nominee Muriel Bowser and independent Carol Schwartz have both said they would keep Henderson.
Their pledges mostly seem meant as tranquilizers for potential supporters anxious about the future of education reform. Some individuals and organizations apparently believe that a change in DCPS’s administration would imperil the few improvements that have been made.
Stability can be a good thing. But election discussions by mayoral candidates about public education in the District can’t be allowed to devolve into a Henderson employment plan.
There was a similar distraction in 2010 regarding whether then-candidate Vincent C. Gray (D) would keep Michelle Rhee. Rhee left, and Gray promoted her deputy, Henderson, who retained several members of Rhee’s team and continued down the reform path paved by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his chancellor.
Simply put: The reform agenda can be augmented or redesigned. But it’s unlikely to be derailed by the departure of one education official.
The mayor — and only the mayor — has command and control of the District’s education apparatus and agenda, according to the 2007 Education Reform Act. Without an executive who understands the complexities of the issues, knows what matters to parents and is willing to act boldly and aggressively, it won’t matter who is chancellor.
Thus far, Catania is the only candidate who has offered a full public education platform. As chairman of the council’s Committee on Education and Libraries, he has spent the past two years focusing on those areas. He’s introduced several significant legislative proposals to improve special education, halt social promotion, reduce truancy and increase resources for at-risk children, which could help close the achievement gap between poor students and others in the District, one of the widest in the country. Critics have accused him of micromanaging. Many parents with whom I have spoken don’t share that view.
A former at-large Republican council member, Schwartz should be well versed in public education. After all, she was a special education and elementary school teacher, a vice president of the now-defunct D.C. Board of Education and consultant to the U.S. Education Department — although that was more than 30 years ago. But she has a record — she helped to launch Benjamin Banneker Senior High School, advocated for a longer instructional day and school year and pushed for teacher evaluation, for example.
Schwartz only recently jumped into the race. She has yet to release a 21st-century education policy document, however. She told me one’s on the way.
Bowser’s position paper on education is a thin reed: She said she wants to invest in middle schools. She has pushed for replication of Alice Deal model across the city and got the council to approve $7 million for fiscal 2015 that would be used to plan a middle school in her home base of Ward 4. Additionally, she said she would deliver “real” technical education, provide additional resources to underperforming schools and expand early childhood education. (The latter two have already been done — the result of work by Catania and Gray.) Bowser also said she would encourage making neighborhood preference a factor in charter admissions — a controversial policy facing growing opposition from advocates for traditional public schools.
Last week, Henderson raised concerns about the location of a new charter across the street from a DCPS school. The academic foci of both schools would be science, technology, engineering and math. A strong supporter of school choice, Henderson told The Post’s Emma Brown, “I don’t think anybody signed up for this kind of uncontrolled expansion of schools without rhyme or reason.” She’s right.
Many parents and some education advocates for years have called for a moratorium on new charters, concerned about redundancy, a lack of coordination and waste of taxpayers’ dollars. The charter board wants to move full-steam ahead, as do others, including former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who last week endorsed Bowser and asserted that now is not the time to pause on reform. Maybe not. But we’ve been at this for more than seven years. It’s time for an honest assessment.
Equally important, it’s certainly time for Bowser, Schwartz and Catania to present to voters a clear and coherent global vision for public education, including whether they support a moratorium on new charters and how they intend to bring innovation and urgency to the reform movement. Then, they can talk about how Henderson — or anyone else — fits in that picture.