Suppose you are mayor of Washington and your public school system has just gone through a series of scandals that you fear could turn families away.
Then suppose you have a chance to fill a top education spot — deputy mayor for education — in your administration, and you realize that your constituents are watching for the message your choice sends.
You know that your last deputy mayor, Jennifer Niles, resigned in February after helping the public schools chancellor (whom you picked) bypass the city’s competitive lottery system and secure a coveted slot for his daughter at a top school. The chancellor, Antwan Wilson, was forced to resign. That followed a graduation scandal sparked by revelations that hundreds of high school seniors received diplomas they had not earned. And then there was the report about the celebrated Duke Ellington School of the Arts allowing about 30 percent of students attend free in violation of residency rules that require students from suburban Maryland and Virginia to pay tuition.
The trail of bad news interrupted a narrative about the school system finally surmounting its long-troubled reputation, with standardized test scores and graduation rates rising. But the scandals fostered fresh questions about the system’s effectiveness and openness, which, you, presumably, as mayor, are eager to directly answer.
So where would you turn to find a new deputy for education, someone who knows the subject, has a record and can send a reassuring message about the future of the public school system in the nation’s capital?
This, for the record, is what D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did and did not do in exactly these circumstances:
She didn’t hire someone with firsthand knowledge of the D.C. school system.
She did hire Paul Kihn, 52, a former deputy superintendent of the Philadelphia school system and an education consultant affiliated with McKinsey & Company before and after that three-year stint.
While in Philadelphia, he led an effort to turn over struggling traditional schools to charter school operators (charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated) as part of a highly controversial “reform” effort that was viewed as especially aggressive. Ultimately, it was suspended.
At McKinsey, he says, he performed consulting work for more than a dozen school systems — but, alas, he won’t say which ones. He did say he addressed issues including finance and organization, graduation rates, attendance rates and charter schools, but nothing more specific. Bowser, according to this Washington Post article, said she chose him at least in part because he seems to be a data expert. The article says:
In an interview Monday evening, Bowser appeared confident in Kihn’s ability to bring stability to the schools. She said she selected him because she believes he will help rebuild trust between families and the schools by ensuring that information on graduation rates and test scores is reliable.
Kihn, who was a teacher in New York for three years, has not worked inside the D.C. school system (though, presumably, could have done consulting work for it), and lives in the District but sends his children to a private school. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with parents sending their children to private schools; these are choices that lucky families get to make. But firsthand knowledge of and experience with the system would benefit any vice mayor of education. And it begs the question of why he didn’t send his children to a D.C. public school, or even a charter school, for that matter. Not good enough?
Kihn is a graduate of the Broad Academy, an initiative funded by billionaire Eli Broad to “train” school district leaders in the philosophy and methods that Broad has supported in regard to “reforming” schools. Broad has spent millions of dollars to expand the charter school sector.
So what message is the D.C. mayor sending to her constituents? That there was nobody inside the school system who could do the job as well as an outsider? That it isn’t important to be totally transparent about the work that the new deputy mayor of education (who has to be confirmed by the D.C. Council) has done in the past? That turning traditional public schools over to charter operators is an acceptable “reform” strategy?
Bowser, while responsible as mayor for the D.C. school system, recently found it necessary to change the composition of a committee she put together in June to help her choose a chancellor to succeed Wilson (interim Amanda Alexander is now in place). In June, Bowser named a 14-person panel that was challenged in court by D.C. residents, who argued that the mayor had not included sufficient student and teacher representation. That original panel had a single teacher and a single student, with most of the members affiliated with foundations and other groups, in one case a charter school.
This month, she added some new members, expanding the panel to 19, including two more students, two more teachers and another parent.
The mayor had come under criticism with her 2016 selection of Wilson, seeking “consultation” from a panel she had selected to help her only after she had decided to hire him.
Bowser’s pattern of failing to sufficiently include the public in public education decisions — at least until she feels pressure — seems, for now, intact.
Incidentally, Bowser has no real opposition in her reelection bid in November.