The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A short guide to the D.C. Public Schools scandals

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson “made a mistake" when he bypassed the school lottery system to help his daughter. (Video: WUSA9)

What is going on in the D.C. public school system?

Over the last three months, DCPS, lauded for several years as a success story of the national movement to reform urban schools, has been beset by its worst series of scandals in at least a decade.

Scrutiny of high school graduation rates — launched in response to an investigation by WAMU-FM (88.5) and NPR — revealed that one-third of graduates should not have received diplomas last year because of chronic truancy and other problems. The ma­nipu­la­tion of those figures led to the firing of several school administrators and prompted an ongoing investigation by the FBI, U.S. Education Department and D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

Now that the school system is actually enforcing its diploma requirements, only 42 percent of this year’s high school seniors are currently on track to graduate, according to a recent report by school officials. (Officials expect the final 2018 graduation rate to be higher, since an additional 19 percent of students are only “moderately” off-track and can still earn diplomas if they improve their grades.)

The uproar over graduation rates had barely subsided before the public learned that the family of D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson had violated school policy by transferring Wilson’s teenage daughter from Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson High School. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) forced both Wilson and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles to resign.

Why is one student switching high schools a scandal?

The answer lies in the District’s notoriously competitive process for enrolling in public schools. Anyone who wants to attend a school other than the one assigned to them by neighborhood must enter a citywide lottery.

In D.C., where many public schools still suffer from poor academics and discipline problems, the number of seats at desirable schools falls far short of demand. As a result, most students find themselves languishing on waiting lists. When the former chancellor’s daughter transferred to Wilson High, she went outside the lottery and skipped a waiting list of more than 600 students.

Special student transfers are permitted in limited circumstances — but since last year the children of public officials have been barred from receiving such transfers to avoid the appearance of favoritism. (Last year The Washington Post reported that the children of two other top Bowser aides received preferential treatment in the school enrollment process.)

Wilson himself wrote the rules to ban special transfers for the families of government officials — and then violated them three months later.

So what? Wouldn’t any parent do what the chancellor did?

In the days before he was forced to resign, Wilson argued that he had acted as a father seeking what was best for his daughter. Many parents in the school system countered that they, too, would like to do what’s best for their children — but are unable to use their position as head of the school system to do so. The situation underlined the frustration many parents feel about unequal access to quality public education in the city.

Wilson’s wife worked directly with the deputy mayor for education and the DCPS secondary schools chief, Jane Spence, to select a new school for their daughter to attend. They also chose not to enroll the girl in her assigned neighborhood school, Dunbar High, a high-poverty, low-achieving school.

Wilson himself had previously said that parents should not be “obsessing” over what schools their kids attended and should get involved with and seek improvement at underperforming neighborhood schools.

The Post has learned that D.C. officials have uncovered signs of widespread enrollment fraud at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest D.C. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

What does this mean for the mayor?

Bowser initially seemed to have contained the uproar over Wilson’s actions by firing her administration’s two top education officials.

That changed on March 5, when Wilson, in an interview with The Post, alleged that the mayor knew about his daughter’s transfer four months ago. His account directly contradicted repeated statements by Bowser and her aides that the mayor only learned about the transfer on Feb. 12 from the Office of the D.C. Inspector General.

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), the chairman of the Education Committee, initially said he wanted to hold a hearing and request that Bowser, Wilson and Niles testify under oath in order to resolve who’s telling the truth about what happened. Bowser countered that she would not participate, dismissing it as a “political circus.”

After speaking with Bowser and a city attorney, Grosso backed off and said he would not call a hearing.

Although there is no suggestion of criminal behavior by anyone involved — Wilson’s actions violated a city administrative policy, not a criminal statute — a public investigation into whether the mayor concealed her knowledge of misconduct by a top appointee could be a draining and damaging distraction in the midst of her reelection campaign. (So far, Bowser faces no serious opponents.)

What does this mean for DCPS?

Since at least 2007, when then-Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee launched the modern era of reform in D.C. public schools by emphasizing the assessment of school and teacher performance by test scores and graduation rates and tying educators’ pay to those metrics, the District has widely been viewed as an exemplar of school improvement.

Former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan has pointed to the District as an example of “what can happen when schools embrace innovative reforms and do the hard work necessary to ensure that all students graduate ready for college and careers.” Philanthropists have poured more than $120 million into DCPS since 2007.

Yet the school district continues to deal with embarrassing revelations — among them an internal investigation into widespread enrollment fraud at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a celebrated high school whose alumni include comedian Dave Chappelle. Current and former D.C. government officials told The Post a lawyer in the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education may have tried to slow down that investigation to avoid more negative publicity for the school system during an election year.

While few would argue that DCPS was better off a decade ago, parents and politicians are now questioning whether they can trust official claims about school progress.

Those suspicions — along with an achievement gap between students from rich and poor families that remains among the nation’s largest — are likely to remain a central concern for D.C. voters and elected officials for some time to come.

I don’t have kids. Why should I care?

The District’s population just passed an important benchmark — 700,000 residents. After decades of struggle and population decline and a flirtation with bankruptcy in the 1990s, the city’s economy is now strong, but confidence in the public school system is fragile, and key to retaining taxpaying families.