The nine candidates vying for seats on the D.C. State Board of Education agree that addressing disparities and inequities in the city’s schools should be a top priority.
There are five open seats on the nine-member board, with contested races for the at-large seat and the seats in wards 7 and 8.
The board’s role was dramatically altered after the District’s schools were put under mayoral control a decade ago. Instead of being the governing body for the school system, overseeing budgets and operations, the board now sets broad policies that govern graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.
The newly elected board will play a crucial role in writing policies to comply with the main federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
That law, the successor to No Child Left Behind, gives states and local governments more control over how to hold schools accountable.
Although the board has no direct control over schools, many of the candidates say the policies it writes can be highly influential. Several said the board can do more to address inequality through policy and by advocating for change.
Mary Lord, the incumbent for the at-large seat, has served on the board since 2007. She said her experience will help the District comply with the new federal law and at the same time address the city’s biggest challenges.
“There is this enormous opportunity to reimagine school success and to build the next generation of school reform from the ground up rather than top down,” Lord, 62, said.
Ashley Carter, 33, a grass-roots organizer for the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative women’s group, is one of two candidates challenging Lord. Carter supports taxpayer vouchers for private schools and public charter schools.
She would like the city to offer incentives to its top educators to teach at underperforming schools. Carter said board members shouldn’t think their only role is to create broad policies and approve academic standards. “A lot of it has to do with being an advocate and being a mouthpiece for a better education system in our city,” said Carter, who does not have children.
Carter and Lord have exchanged jabs during the race.
Carter accused Lord of mischaracterizing her positions on education issues.
Meanwhile, someone with Carter’s username and email address logged onto DCUrbanmoms, a popular public online forum, and called Lord “old and crazy” earlier this week.
“I’m voting Smarter with Carter,” the post said. “Not only do I like that slogan, but her positive message has won me and my neighborhood over. Mary Lord is old and crazy. Maybe she can wear some more scarves to hide her turkey neck and dress like a homeless lady.”
Carter apologized, saying a volunteer posted the comment while using Carter’s computer to do other campaign-related activities.
Carter said the volunteer, who she would not identify, is no longer helping in her campaign. “I have run a completely positive campaign and will continue to do so,” she said.
Tony Donaldson, a 19-year-old freshman at Howard University, is also challenging Lord. He said the board lacks the voice of someone who has experienced the impact of its policies firsthand.
Donaldson said he wants other schools to have the same resources as the sought-after Duke Ellington School of the Arts, from which he graduated.
Like Donaldson, candidates for the seats in wards 7 and 8 said they see inequitable resources and achievement gaps as central problems.
Tierra Jolly, 34, the incumbent in Ward 8, teaches at Oxon Hill High School and says that experience gives her a valuable perspective. First elected in 2014, Jolly said she wants to continue to focus on issues such as teacher turnover, which disproportionately affects low-income schools.
“We see pockets of excellence all through out the city. Sometimes it’s a school, sometimes it’s one class,” she said. “But those things are not happening consistently across the city.”
Markus Batchelor, 23, who is challenging Jolly, noted that Ward 8 has more charter schools than traditional public schools and wants stronger accountability for charters. He wants to turn neighborhood schools into community schools with health clinics and other services for parents and students. He works at a community nonprofit in Southeast Washington.
Shakira Hemphill, 35, who is also running in Ward 8, is an administrator at Friendship Public Charter School. She said she was motivated to run because she wants to see someone on the board advocate for students with special needs. Her 11-year-old son has a disability and attends the Kennedy Krieger School, a private school in Baltimore.
Hemphill believes the board should work to regain power over the city’s schools, saying it can prove to the mayor that it can manage them.
Ward 7 candidate Marla Dean, 47, an administrator at Caesar Chavez Public Charter School, also wants to end mayoral control. She said the schools lack transparency, that parents often do not know how to resolve problems involving their children’s schools and that mayoral control has created distance between parents and the school system.
“This structure has only further marginalized people,” said Dean, whose son graduated from Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school, and now attends Morehouse College.
Dean also wants to improve the relationship between charter and public schools.
The State Board of Education has little control over the allocation of school funding, but the Ward 7 candidates said they want school leaders, including the next chancellor for D.C. Public Schools, to increase resources to their ward.
Karen Williams, 67, the incumbent in Ward 7, said the next chancellor should be someone already working in the school system to provide some consistency.
“I want this person to be innovative and to listen to all constituents,” said Williams, whose child graduated from D.C. Public Schools.
Dorothy Douglas, 68, is running because she says the board and schools across the city have not done enough to keep parents informed. Douglas served on the board in 2009 and lost her reelection bid to Williams in 2012. If elected, Douglas said she would create new ways to keep parents up to date.
“Parents are not being represented in a positive way,” she said. “We are being left out.”