Current and former government officials will be barred from receiving special treatment for their children in the District’s notoriously competitive school-enrollment process under a policy adopted by Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson.
The change comes after an uproar over a D.C. inspector general’s report that found that while she was schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson gave preferential treatment to public officials’ children by helping enroll them directly in coveted schools, skirting the city’s highly competitive school lottery.
Extraordinary secrecy surrounded that report, which did not name any of the parents who received favors from Henderson and was initially kept confidential by the inspector general’s office. In May, The Washington Post disclosed that two top officials in the cabinet of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) were among those who benefited. The Post later obtained and published the report.
Wilson’s new policy — announced in a letter Tuesday to D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman David Grosso (I-At Large) — goes beyond the steps Bowser laid out in an executive order she signed May 12, three days after The Post reported that Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden had her son placed directly at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a school with a waiting list of more than 1,000 students seeking places.
Bowser’s order required cabinet officials to consult with the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability before requesting a “discretionary transfer” from the chancellor.
In contrast, Wilson’s policy states that if current or former public officials request special school placements, school officials “will deny the request immediately without further consideration.”
In his letter to Grosso, Wilson said the blanket ban is intended “to limit any possibility of favoritism or improper use of public office for private gain, or even the appearance of favoritism.”
Special school transfers will still be available for students who require them for special education or because of disabilities, those who are physically endangered at their schools and the children of military families, who sometimes cannot go through the normal lottery process because of the timing of their parents’ postings.
LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Bowser, said the new policy reflected the mayor’s decision to make permanent a moratorium on discretionary transfers for public officials’ children that she put in place in May.
“As the policy was being formulated, the mayor decided that the best way to ensure confidence in the process was to extend the prohibition permanently,” Foster said.
D.C. Public Schools press secretary Michelle Lerner said Wilson would not comment on the new rules beyond the written policy. She said the policy does not apply retroactively to public officials’ children who are already in placements facilitated by Henderson.
The revelation of Henderson’s special treatment for the children of public officials and some other associates outraged many District parents. In a city in which the quality of public schools varies widely, the lottery — which enables families to seek access to schools outside their neighborhoods — is an annual source of angst.
D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas concluded that Henderson did not commit any crimes but had misused her authority by giving preference to some parents who requested placements that bypassed the lottery process. Among those Henderson helped were Snowden; City Administrator Rashad M. Young; former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Roberto J. Rodríguez, a former staffer in the Obama White House.
Snowden and Young have maintained that they did nothing improper, an assertion echoed by the mayor. Henderson, who resigned last year after six years heading DCPS, has dismissed the findings of the inspector general’s report as “an attempt to besmirch my personal and professional reputation.”
The city’s ethics board is also conducting an investigation into Henderson’s handling of school placements.
Grosso, of the D.C. Council, had requested information about all special school placements dating to 2014, the year in which the citywide lottery was launched. In his response, Wilson said the school district had not kept “systematic records” of those placements but estimated that fewer than five had been made, beyond the seven described in the inspector general’s report.
None had been made since Henderson left office, Wilson said.
“Although I am disappointed that it appears better records were not kept of such requests dating back to 2014, I applaud the chancellor for establishing a policy to restore parents’ confidence in the common lottery process and utilize a more formal, transparent process for discretionary placements going forward,” Grosso said in a statement.