Mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser and David Catania (Melina Mara; Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The campaign for D.C. mayor enters the final fall stretch this week with new evidence that the quality of public schools — and how voters feel about them — could decide what is widely seen as the city’s most competitive general election in at least two decades.

Independent candidate David A. Catania, an at-large D.C. Council member, has been talking about school accountability for months. Last week, the Democratic candidate, council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), joined in — making it clear that both candidates now agree that the race could be won or lost over the school issue.

“It’s absolutely the issue that will decide my vote,” said Chealsa Branch, standing outside Lafayette Elementary, one of the District’s top-rated schools, where her daughter began kindergarten last week.

Nearly eight years after then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) launched a dramatic crusade to improve D.C. schools, how to do so remains the city’s most vexing public policy question and one of its most perilous political quandaries. The city has had a new emphasis on testing, a housecleaning of teachers, school construction, a steep rise of charter schools — and has seen school performance improve. Yet the debate rages about what to do next.

All of which may explain Bowser’s caution on the subject. Her jump into the education debate last week marked a departure from the past five months, when she had mostly avoided public policy discussions after winning her party’s nomination. For Bowser, in fact, the beginning of the school year looked a lot like the beginning of her campaign.


Bowser picked up trash around a struggling elementary school. She spent the first day of classes shaking hands with parents and students. And then she made one of her most forceful pronouncements on education policy, criticizing a plan to realign school boundaries and promising to come up with her own plan if elected.

Catania has relentlessly criticized Bowser for lagging behind on policy prescriptions, and her actions over the past week could give him more fodder. Her criticism of the boundary plan grew more forceful as the week went on — an example of her struggle to express the principles underlying her positions on education. She alienated some parents, who have accepted the current boundary plan as a way to bring consistency to what has been a haphazard school-assignment process and are weary of the uncertainty that new reform proposals bring.

Yet looming over the nitty-gritty of the schools issue is the reality that the city, where winning the Democratic primary has always been tantamount to winning the mayoralty, has never seen a truly competitive general election for mayor. And it remains uncertain whether it has one now. The central question of the campaign is whether Catania’s energetic bid for the school vote can surmount his disadvantages as a non-
Democrat. But if there’s one issue catching voters’ attention this year, it’s the quality of the city’s schools.

Reform fatigue?

Joe Clark, watching his son line up for his fourth day of kindergarten, agreed that education is the top issue but said he is skeptical about what politicians have to say about it.

“My issue is that every time we elect a new leader, they want to reform some aspect of education — there’s no consistency, no stability, no continuity,” Clark said. “The result of that, I think, is that it doesn’t help the overall education of our kids.”

Bowser weighed in on the boundary plan last Monday, four days after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) adopted it. She said one aspect of the proposal — drawing districts along geographical boundaries such as Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River — would be “problematic.”

A day later, Bowser issued a news release saying the entire plan was “not ready” and would “exacerbate educational inequality.”

See theoretical scenarios for how Bowser and Catania could win the mayoral race.

Bowser appeared to be disagreeing with Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whom she has vowed to keep on as the face of education reform in a Bowser administration. Henderson has praised the boundary plan; now, the chancellor will begin implementing the plan with the awkward — and costly — possibility looming that her next boss could call it off halfway into the school year.

In an interview, Bowser raised fresh questions about her confidence in Henderson by saying that she didn’t expect the chancellor to be involved in the boundary issue in her administration. The candidate also risked alienating the parents and reformers who spent 10 months on the plan when she questioned the transparency of the process.

“I thank them sincerely for their service,” Bowser said. “But let’s be clear — we’re not really clear on the process they used. ”

The boundary issue is the hot topic this week, but it is a window into the larger challenges D.C. schools face: improving school performance; narrowing achievement gaps between black and white students, and poor and affluent students, that are among the largest in the country; and keeping families happy who have the choice of moving or putting their children in private or charter schools.

Despite some of the highest per-student funding in the country, the District’s schools have lagged behind most states and urban areas for a long time, though there has recently seen some test-score improvement. The system is also fighting to keep students — and, in some cases, actually recruiting them — to address the exodus of middle-class families, particularly when students hit middle school.

Bowser has only slowly offered specifics on those larger issues. Early on, she staked her education platform to middle-school improvement. Her drumbeat that every student deserved to go to the best school in the city — she called it “Alice Deal for all,” a reference to the city’s top-
performing middle school — helped propel her to victory in the primary. But the slogan also drew derision from opponents who demanded specifics and didn’t hear any.

Asked this summer for details, Bowser said she wants to transform at least four middle shools and ensure that the city dedicates money for renovations. She also said she would push for greater involvement from parents and community organizations.

During the run-up to the Democratic primary, Bowser criticized the pace of school improvement under Gray and was noncommittal about Henderson.

Later, Bowswer explained that her decision to keep Henderson was meant to preserve continuity and signal her faith in the high-profile and often controversial education reform efforts that Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, brought to the city.

“I think what people really don’t want to see is the stop-pause-change in how we move our schools, because just inevitably that means we’re stopping progress,” Bowser said. “I think what is striking is how the majority of people in the District seem to feel that the schools are moving in the right direction.”

Stressing accountability

Catania has remained constant on many school issues, including the boundary plan, which he said he would pause for at least a year.

His rationale, which Gray and Henderson have criticized, is that school quality has to get better across the board before boundaries change. It would be wrong, he said, to force parents who now have a right to send a child to a higher-performing school to instead accept a lower-performing one.

Catania was not a notable player in D.C. education until 18 months ago, when he became chairman of the council’s Education Committee. He has drawn accusations that he is a micromanager who thinks he knows more than others about the issue. But his in-the-weeds work on education policy, including the equivalent of about two months spent visiting more than 140 of the city’s 200-plus schools, has attracted some grass-roots support for the District’s first white, gay, independent mayoral candidate.

Unlike Bowser, Catania has not committed to keeping Henderson as chancellor.

He has introduced more than 10 wide-ranging education bills. Several have become law, including one that increases funding for each at-risk student by thousands of dollars.

One bill that did not pass offers a glimpse of Catania’s broader vision for change: It calls for a new system for judging the performance of traditional schools, communicating that judgment to parents, and forcing change in schools that consistently fail to meet targets.

D.C. Public Schools “does not have an accountability infrastructure at the moment with any consequences whatsoever,” Catania said in an interview.

Catania’s bill would bring a charter-like framework to the city’s traditional public schools. The District’s Office of the State Superintendent for Education would grow in power, serving more like a state’s education department, with more ability to take action when schools don’t meet expectations.

Using student test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and other data, OSSE would design a method to determine which schools are underperforming. Those schools would be required, with the help of parents, teachers and other members of the community, to develop turnaround plans.

If, after implementing the turnaround plan, a school continues to fail to meet targets for several years, OSSE could require the chancellor to take one of several actions, including turning the school over to a charter operator, converting it into an “innovation school” free from city regulations that Henderson views as restrictive, or closing it.

Catania said that while closing schools is not his aim, he continues to believe in the basic thrust of his bill — that schools need to be fairly evaluated, that there need to be clear consequences for those not producing results, and that there has to be an outside monitor to enforce those consequences.

Another candidate for mayor, former D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, who is running as an independent, is more openly skeptical of the city’s current education policies. But Schwartz said that there is a sense of progress and that she would keep Henderson. Her main pitch to voters is her long experience with schools, first as a special-education teacher and later as a two-term member of the old D.C. Board of Education. Her children attended D.C. public schools.

Schwartz said a detailed position paper on education is forthcoming from her campaign.

In the meantime, parents — and voters — will be paying close attention.

Helen DeVinney watched with nervous excitement as her twin girls entered Lafayette last week. A former researcher on school reform who moved to the District only recently, she summed up the sentiment of many parents: “D.C. doesn’t have a very good reputation. We’ll be watching pretty carefully to see if we can stay in D.C. as the grades progress.”