With 75 percent of its voters registered as Democrats, the District is hardly a battleground in next week's presidential election. The city has overwhelmingly favored the Democratic candidate in every election since its residents were given the right to vote for president in 1964. And the partisan races for the D.C. Council were all but decided in the Sept. 14 primary.
That leaves two seats on the D.C. Board of Education as the most hotly contested races this Election Day. About half of the District's 275,479 voters will have a chance Tuesday to decide who will represent them on the board, which sets policy for the city's 64,000-student school system.
The D.C. Board of Education was restructured in 2000 when voters, urged to do so by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), narrowly agreed to change the composition of the board: four members are elected to represent two wards each, four are appointed by the mayor and a president is elected citywide. The board also has two student representatives. The two nonpartisan races Tuesday are for the seats representing District 1, which comprises Wards 1 and 2, and District 2, which comprises Wards 3 and 4.
In August, the board voted unanimously to appoint Clifford B. Janey as the system's fifth superintendent in nine years.
With the support of the mayor and the D.C. Council, the reconfigured board is finally coming into its own, said board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who was elected in 2000.
"I think the board has really turned a corner," Cafritz said. "We have a new superintendent, and it's really important to have a strong and cohesive board, one that understands the difference between policy and operations."
While the two districts have roughly equal populations, their demographics are different.
Ward 1 is the city's most diverse, containing the trendy Adams Morgan and U Street neighborhoods and the District's largest concentrations of Latino and Asian immigrants. Ward 2 stretches from prosperous Georgetown in the west to rapidly changing Shaw in the east, and it includes the affluent communities of Kalorama and Dupont Circle, as well as a sliver of Southwest Washington. The ward has many childless professional couples.
Ward 3, home to many of the city's wealthiest and most powerful residents, boasts the two schools with the highest enrollment -- Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and Alice Deal Junior High School -- because of their popularity among parents across the city. Ward 4 is the traditional heart of the city's black middle class and is home to some of the District's most active and engaged parents.
Eleven candidates -- eight men and three women, ranging in age from 30 to 61 -- are contenders in nonpartisan races for the two school board seats. They include a software engineer, four federal employees and two people who work on education issues full time at policy and advocacy organizations. Four of the candidates are former elementary, middle or high school teachers. Three are lawyers (a fourth has a law degree) and two hold MBA degrees. Several have children who attend or have graduated from the public schools.
Board members serve four-year terms. They are paid an annual stipend, currently $15,000, and most hold outside employment.
The race for the District 1 seat was thrown wide open last month when the front-runner, incumbent Julie Mikuta, decided not to run for reelection.
Mikuta, a 1991 graduate of Georgetown University who went on to study educational policy at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, won in 2000 after portraying herself as a reformer with a deep knowledge of education policy.
But as a newcomer, she grew exasperated with the slow pace of school system reform and complained that the board lacked a sense of urgency about raising student achievement. "I can make more impact by working to improve education in another capacity," she said in a statement announcing that she was dropping out of the race. Mikuta is in charge of alumni affairs at Teach for America, which places college graduates in jobs teaching low-income children across the United States.