Not many topics in local government grab James Hunter’s attention, but the District’s public-school lottery is one of them. And he says that what he saw and heard from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last week about allegations that a member of her cabinet bypassed the lottery to enroll her child in a top school made him “livid.”
Hunter, 38, a Capitol Hill resident whose daughter was matched through the lottery with a pre-K program at Miner Elementary School, said he was upset to learn that Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden had her son specially placed at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, which has a waiting list of more than 1,000 families.
But what added insult to injury, Hunter said, was Bowser’s insistence this week that Snowden had done nothing wrong.
“I’m very puzzled that the mayor doesn’t seem to understand that this is wrong and unacceptable,” he said. “If it turns out that this really is a type of cronyism, and she knew about it and didn’t do anything about it, she’s lost my vote.”
Hunter was among a half-dozen parents interviewed by The Washington Post who said they were troubled — and in some cases deeply angered — by revelations last week that seven people improperly received preferential treatment from then-D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, including at least one member of Bowser’s cabinet.
A common theme in their complaints was that while the underlying behavior looked bad, Bowser’s reaction was worse. The mayor has asserted that Snowden did not err by asking Henderson for a special school placement, and that the fault — if any — was Henderson’s for saying yes.
After days of media attention, Bowser’s spokesman said late Friday that she would issue a temporary moratorium on special or “discretionary” school transfers while Chancellor Antwan Wilson, Henderson’s successor, is allowed 30 days to craft new rules for such transfers.
Bowser will also require that mayoral appointees consult with the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability before asking for special placements for their children, and that the chancellor likewise contact the ethics board whenever a public official requests a placement. Kevin Harris, the mayor’s spokesman, said the new guidelines “will help to bring more accountability and transparency around the school chancellor’s authority.”
However, the mayor has shown no sign that she sees a problem with Snowden’s role in the schools scandal, which was investigated by the D.C. inspector general.
“The deputy mayor did what was available to her, and the chancellor made the decision,” Bowser said at a news conference Thursday. “The chancellor is the educator in this equation and in the best position to make that decision.”
Kristene Blake, 32, a Capitol Hill resident who tried but failed to win a preschool spot for one of her two children through the lottery, called Bowser’s reasoning “ridiculous.”
“I don’t buy that at all,” said Blake, who works for the federal government. “That’s infuriating.”
“Nothing seems to surprise me anymore, so I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “But I’m deeply angered, because I went through and followed all of the rules.”
The extent to which Bowser’s top aides are involved in the lottery case is unknown. A report by D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas found that Henderson had misused her authority to make school transfers by giving preferential treatment to seven government officials and members of the public, including two Bowser appointees.
The Post reported last week that the inspector general delved into how the child of Snowden, Bowser’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, was placed at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan. Snowden confirmed that she requested a special placement but said she was merely taking advantage of “an option available to every parent.”
On Thursday, Bowser said she believed the inspector general had wrongly concluded that City Administrator Rashad M. Young, her most powerful appointed cabinet member, also received a special school placement. In fact, Young participated in the lottery and enrolled his children at a school where they were selected from a waiting list.
The inspector general has refused to make his report public, but has shared it with Bowser and with D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s Education Committee. Grosso said that in addition to two Bowser appointees, the report stated that five other people — a former District elected official, a former Obama White House staffer, the director of a nonprofit organization that works with the school district, a school principal and a former classmate of Henderson’s — secured preferential treatment for children.
Grosso and the mayor have declined to release the report, saying the inspector general asked them to keep it confidential. The report does not identify those Henderson helped by name, they said, although their identities can be inferred from other details.
Wilma R. Harvey, a past president of the D.C. Board of Education, said the report’s findings have already undermined confidence in the District’s lottery process.
“It’s unfair for one group to have an advantage over another, no matter who you are,” Harvey said. “When you start picking and choosing, it does give cause for pause about the integrity of the system.”
She added, “I’ve been around long enough that, unfortunately, I think this kind of thing is the norm, not the exception, if we are going to be honest.”
Conor Williams, a senior researcher at New America’s Education Policy Program and father of two children who were placed at their school through the District’s lottery, said the disclosure of special treatment for the politically connected was particularly unfortunate in the District, whose lottery has been held up as a national model.
“That system works well and is a force for equity when there’s no way to game the system and get your way in,” Williams said. If favoritism pollutes the process, he said, “it just does huge damage” to the presumption of fairness that underlies the system.
“It’s just extremely dispiriting,” he said.