Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pledged to strengthen oversight of the District’s public schools during her State of the District speech Thursday night, saying that trust in the education system “needs to be rebuilt” after debilitating scandals.
Bowser’s remarks during her annual address were perhaps her most candid and wide-reaching acknowledgment of problems that over the past three months have shaken the public schools in the nation’s capital and tarnished the city’s national image as a leading laboratory of education reform.
Those problems have included a federal investigation into inflated graduation rates, allegations of enrollment fraud at a marquee public high school and the forced resignation of Bowser’s handpicked schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, after his family improperly enrolled his daughter at a high school with a waiting list of more than 600 students.
“There have been bumps in the road. Frankly, there have been some pretty significant bumps,” Bowser said. “But now the Band-Aid has been ripped off, and we understand better than ever the challenges we face.”
Bowser said the schools had made progress over the decade since former mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his chancellor, Michelle Rhee, set out to overhaul the school system by rewarding teachers and administrators based on test scores, graduation rates and other metrics. But she acknowledged that project needs renewed attention.
“I recognize that there is trust that needs to be rebuilt between our school system and parents, and systems of accountability and oversight that need to be reinforced and reviewed,” she said, a line that brought a scattering of disruptive shouts from the audience.
However, she described no specific new policies or initiatives to fix the problems that have rocked the school system.
The mayor’s remarks on education came toward the end of an address that announced no major legislation. Bowser is approaching the end of her first term in office with secure prospects for reelection: She has raised more than $2 million in campaign funds and so far has no serious challengers.
By many measures, the District is thriving. The city has money to give away — and it has, converting excess revenue into tax breaks for its residents. Its population has grown by roughly 15 percent in the past seven years, according to census estimates, and hit a milestone of 700,000 last month. Crime has dropped dramatically in many neighborhoods.
Bowser highlighted those successes in her speech but also addressed less welcome facts of life in the city she leads, such as stubbornly high homelessness, gentrification that has squeezed out poor and middle-class families, and high rates of infant and maternal mortality.
Immediately before Bowser’s speech, a group of about 50 protesters gathered outside to decry what they said is growing income inequality on the mayor’s watch.
The demonstrators — a mix of young progressives, older black residents and clergy members — had a variety of complaints, including increased water bills and cuts in bus routes. “It’s in a state of inequity,” said Akela Crawford, a 33-year-old advocate for the homeless who lives in Southeast Washington and came for the protest. “You can’t talk about D.C. without talking about that. But the focus is always on Amazon and the Wharf and all the nice, new things going up.”
In her address, the mayor said she plans to introduce legislation this year that would ensure better prenatal and neonatal care. She said the bill would put more money into programs that reduce preterm births, set up a system for tracking health outcomes for newborns, and establish an advisory body that will suggest policies for improving the health of mothers and babies in the District.
That proposal comes after the District’s only public hospital was forced by regulators to close its nursery and delivery rooms after medical errors in the treatment of a pregnant woman who died, along with her baby. The closure left women east of the Anacostia River without a hospital in which to give birth or seek prenatal care.
That hospital, United Medical Center, has also struggled through financial problems and allegations of mismanagement. Bowser said she will announce a “partnership” this year to build a hospital for Southeast Washington on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
The mayor also highlighted her plan — which has recently drawn criticism from some council members and advocates — to demolish the city’s main family homeless shelter at the former site of D.C. General Hospital.
“That shelter is an embarrassment to our city, and I will not be the mayor who passes up on the opportunity to demolish it,” she said.
The mayor vowed to close the shelter during her 2014 campaign, replacing it with smaller neighborhood shelters throughout the city. That plan is underway, with three of the six planned shelters expected to open this year.
Before Bowser had uttered a word, her State of the District address already said something about the District’s mixed fortunes as she nears the end of her first term.
Bowser originally planned to give the address at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an acclaimed magnet school in Northwest that recently underwent a $170 million renovation — $100 million over budget. But after recent revelations of suspected enrollment fraud at the school, the mayor relocated her speech to the University of the District of Columbia.
A Bowser spokeswoman said the venue had been changed because of better parking and public-transit access at the university, which hosted the State of the District address last year. But the abrupt change of plans underscored the extent to which the mayor is maneuvering to cope with scandals in the city’s school system.
The enrollment scandal came after an investigation, commissioned by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, showing that more than one-third of last year’s high school graduates should not have received diplomas because of chronic truancy and other problems. With more rigid enforcement of academic standards in place, less than half of the class of 2018 is on track to graduate, according to D.C. public schools officials.
Wilson, the former schools chancellor, was forced to resign last month amid public outrage that his family skirted the notoriously competitive citywide school lottery to enroll his daughter at a high school with a waiting list of more than 600 students. After stepping down, Wilson asserted that he had informed Bowser of the transfer in October, contradicting the mayor’s statements that she was unaware of it.
Ivonne Johnson, a retired D.C. public schools employee who joined the protesters before the speech, said she sees the graduation scandal as an outgrowth of a school system that has been overly focused on juicing its numbers to show progress.
“Just like the mayor has done nothing about housing, I don’t think she has done anything about education,” said Johnson, a 74-year-old Northeast resident who lives with her daughter and 8-year-old grandson. “She has all the responsibility, and I would like to see the school board back, because you are asking someone to run a school system who has never taught . . . never been a principal and doesn’t have degrees in education.”
Eugene Puryear, a 32-year-old activist and frequent critic of the mayor, said the school troubles only hardened his view that the mayor’s priorities are misplaced.
“It’s very problematic when you see almost all of the mayor’s top aides without much thought to it abusing the placement system,” Puryear said. “You start to think it’s not so much about improving education, but making the numbers look good so you can claim you are improving education for your reelection campaign.”