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.
Mikuta has not endorsed any of the four candidates attempting to succeed her. While there have been no broad surveys or polls, the two who appear to have the strongest support are Jeff Smith and Keenan Keller.
Smith, a 30-year-old city employee, has won the endorsement of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and of Kwame R. Brown, the Democratic nominee for one of two at-large council seats to be decided Tuesday. Smith has emphasized his youth and energy, promising to be a round-the-clock board member who would reach out to disaffected parents.
Many of those parents are not deeply involved in their children's education, Smith said, because they themselves had poor educational experiences. "They feel these same schools let them down," he said. "If we were to move PTA meetings and other school activities outside the structure of the school at least part of the time -- say, to recreation centers, churches or even people's living rooms -- then I think we would see a higher level of parental involvement."
After four years in the Army, Smith received undergraduate and law degrees from Howard University, but he has not joined the bar. Since receiving his law degree in 2001, he has worked on projects for two law firms and taught fifth grade for several months in 2002 at Gibbs Elementary School.
Smith spoke of the need for better training of new teachers. When he was hired at Gibbs, he said, "my induction program was a stack of books and a key to my classroom."
A native of Reading, Pa., who moved to the District at age 11, Smith has worked since April 2003 for the Income Maintenance Administration, the unit of the D.C. Department of Human Services that manages cash assistance to poor families. He is on leave from that job to run for the school board.
Keller, 40, is the other highly visible candidate in District 1. Born into a farming family in rural Haywood County, Tenn., he graduated from Brown University in 1986 and from Yale Law School in 1989. After clerking for a federal judge in Alabama, he practiced law at two firms and worked for a health-care consultant, the Advisory Board Co., before moving to the District in 1999 to work for Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). He is now a Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, where Conyers is the ranking Democrat.
As the parent of a child at Bancroft Elementary School, Keller said, he has witnessed "inequitable or inconsistent application of curriculum requirements," which has shortchanged children. Schools lack money for gym, music and art teachers and even for librarians, he said, calling for changes in the funding formula used to allocate money to schools.
Like other candidates, Keller was critical of the state of school facilities, which are slowly being modernized, one school at a time, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under an arrangement with the school system that is to be gradually phased out.
Keller blamed the current board for the system's deficiencies. "Things are so bad that they can't get worse in terms of where we are in governance," he said. "If the board doesn't step up, it will undermine the ability of the superintendent to do his job."
The other candidates for the board seat are Eleanor Johnson, 47, and Christopher McKeon, 45. Both live in Adams Morgan and are running little-publicized campaigns.
Johnson, a former member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C, described herself as a visual and performance artist who grew up in the District. She called for more money for pre-kindergarten programs and for high schools. She said that underutilized school buildings should be shared with space-strapped charter schools or rented out to nonprofit groups or business firms.
Johnson said she is a community activist who graduated from a public high school in Maryland, but she declined to identify the school. She said she attended college and a paralegal program in the District. McKeon, a software engineer, is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and a former missionary for the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He said he is no longer affiliated with the church. In 1998, he received a master's in divinity from the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, N.Y., which is part of the church.
A single parent with two children at H.D. Cooke Elementary School, McKeon said he decided to run because of dissatisfaction with his children's education. He called for hiring a contractor to run basic school operations, saying the system suffers from a "bloated, incompetent bureaucracy" and from cronyism.
The District 2 race resembles the fractured race four years ago, when six candidates divided the vote. Two of those candidates -- Dwight E. Singleton, who won in 2000 with 31 percent of the vote, and Hugh Allen, who came in second with 27 percent -- are running again, along with five others.
Singleton, 42, a resident of Brightwood, was elected to the board in 1998 as the Ward 4 representative before winning his seat on the reconfigured board as the District 2 representative two years later.
Singleton's challengers criticize him for what they say is a poor attendance record at Board of Education meetings. The board does not maintain centralized records of attendance at its meetings, but minutes indicate that Singleton missed four of the nine meetings held from January to September, including a public hearing in June. In addition, Singleton arrived late at several meetings he attended, according to several board members. "My schedule sort of challenges me," he acknowledged.
He attributed his attendance record to his responsibilities caring for his 74-year-old mother and commuting to and from his job as a counselor at Baltimore City Community College.
Singleton said his six years on the board uniquely qualify him to serve. "I should be reelected solely because I have the experience," he said. "I am the only candidate that has the experience of working with the superintendent. We need seasoned board members who understand the culture of the school system and how our school system works."
The parent of a fifth-grader at Eaton Elementary School, Singleton said the board has been hampered by the off-and-on clashes with Williams over school governance. The mayor has unsuccessfully proposed making the board an all-appointed body, although he said he now supports the board's mix of elected and appointed members.
"My effectiveness has been somewhat diminished by a lot of the political discussions," Singleton said. Expressing a degree of uncertainty about his chances, he said, "there are needs, basic needs that parents in this school community have. If I can't address those needs, it makes it very difficult to be reelected."
Allen, 61, a parent advocate, is making another try for the seat. A resident of Tenleytown, he works on housing finance at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A Baltimore native who grew up near Winston-Salem, N.C., Allen has lived in the District since 1972. He chairs the legislative committee of the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations and was a co-president of the PTA at Wilson Senior High School, which graduated two of his three children. He is endorsed by the mayor and by D.C. Council members Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).
"This time, I'm targeting high-voter precincts," Allen said, pointing to his door-to-door outreach efforts. Allen called for "continuous, sustained training" of teachers in effective instruction and for creating a professional development institute to provide training year-round.
He portrayed Singleton as out of touch and using the board seat as a springboard to run for the D.C. Council, a charge that Singleton denies. "One of the things I want to continue to do is bring the voice of the parents to the board, and I think I'm the best at doing that," Allen said.
Two younger candidates with experience in education policy also have attracted notice with lawn signs and door-to-door visits.
Victor Reinoso, 35, is director of education initiatives at the Federal City Council, a coalition of business leaders formed in 1954 to work on civic issues in the District. The group is trying to help reform special education for disabled students by persuading private groups to open public charter schools for the children, many of whom now attend expensive private schools through funding from the school system. The Federal City Council also is helping to pay for the D.C. branch of New Leaders for New Schools, a program that recruits experienced professionals from outside fields to become urban school principals.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Reinoso speaks fluent Spanish and is the son of Peruvian immigrants. If elected, he would be one of two Latinos -- with vice president Marian Saez -- on the board. He spoke passionately about the need to improve building maintenance, arguing that the current capital budget focuses on overhauling the schools over many years while the vast majority of students are left in crumbling facilities.
"I would like to see a focus on lower-cost upgrades so that every kid is in a school that has bathrooms that work," he said. He has the endorsement of Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).
Reinoso was in Mikuta's class at Georgetown -- the two lived in the same freshman dormitory -- and received an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997. Until 1994, he worked at the Equal Rights Center, a local civil rights group. From 1997 to 1999 and again from 2001 to 2003, he worked for Marconi Pacific Inc., a consulting firm based in Bethesda, interrupted by an effort to create an Internet-based radio company.
Laura McGiffert Slover, 36, also has a background in education policy. A native Washingtonian who graduated from the private Sidwell Friends School, Slover graduated from Harvard University in 1990 and received a master's in education from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1994.
For four years, she taught high school English near Vail, Colo., in a school district with a large population of Latino children whose parents were agricultural workers. "I taught everything, from the lowest level [students] who almost didn't make it into high school to the Advanced Placement literature class that I designed and started," she said.
Slover returned to the District in 1998 to join Achieve Inc., an advocacy group for higher academic standards. There, she directs the mathematics achievement partnership, which tries to build consensus among national experts around grade-by-grade learning standards in math. Studying part-time, Slover earned a master's in public policy from Georgetown University in 2001. She also is a volunteer at Project Northstar, a local tutoring program for homeless children.
"We need a good, strong curriculum that provides concrete, specific expectations for what all kids need to learn and do," she said. "That's critical. Beyond standards, you need to establish a core curriculum."
Two federal employees and a former D.C. schoolteacher round out the crowded field.
Tom Dawson, 37, is a pension law specialist at the U.S. Department of Labor. A Miami native who graduated from Morehouse College, he has law and public health degrees from George Washington University. He taught science to seventh- and eighth-graders in the Miami public schools for a year before moving to the District in 1994.
A Crestwood resident, Dawson said the school board should raise funds for school renovations using tax-increment financing, a tool used by local governments to fund building projects to support economic development.
He also called for an outside review of the system's curriculum. "I am insistent upon us having a uniform accrediting body come into the District and assess all of our schools in terms of their performance from a qualitative perspective," he said. "We can't be fearful of having standards."
Dawson said that discipline problems are worsened by removing children from school, and he called for expanding in-school suspension, where children can be offered instruction and help with their behavioral problems. "We can have children who are wandering the streets during the day, getting killed, or children who are still in school, in a monitored environment," he said.
David A. Jordan, also 37, works for the General Services Administration and has a daughter at Stoddert Elementary School in the Glover Park neighborhood of Ward 3. He said his experience working on federal building projects could help the city revamp its building maintenance program.
"The city hasn't been showing the necessary commitment, resources or responsiveness to students and parents," he said. "In particular, I am concerned about the terrible condition of facilities." Instead of relying on the Army Corps, the school system should hire a variety of private project managers, Jordan said: "We have to do the basics: paint, bathrooms and landscaping."
A native of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Jordan graduated from Columbia University in 1992 and holds an MBA from Vanderbilt University. Previously, he worked as a New York state legislative aide and as an investment adviser in Moscow.
The final candidate in the race is Mai Abdul Rahman, 46, a former third-grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School who has four children attending the fifth to 12th grades in the District's public schools.
Training of teachers "has to be directly related to the needs of their constituents," she said, adding that principals need help in working with students from diverse ethnic and religious groups.
Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Lebanon, Abdul Rahman graduated from Drake University in Des Moines in 1979 and is pursuing a master's in elementary education from Trinity College in the District. She worked as a journalist for 10 years, writing for Arabic-language publications. She also has experience as a consultant for health ministries in the Middle East and North Africa and as a marketing and public relations manager.