A long-running bit of political kabuki came to an end in a D.C. living room Tuesday night: Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser confirmed that, if elected, she will keep Chancellor Kaya Henderson in charge of the D.C. Public Schools.
Bowser had been critical of the pace of school improvement in the city and noncommittal about keeping Henderson, who has led the school system since the 2010 departure of Michelle A. Rhee. But the situation apparently changed when the two met for lunch a few days after Bowser defeated Mayor Vincent C. Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary.
“I talked to Kaya immediately after our primary and to really understand her vision for the schools, how she’s going to urgently attack some issues, including how we’re going to invest in middle schools and close the achievement gap,” Bowser said Wednesday morning as she arrived at Dunbar High School’s graduation ceremony.
“She demonstrated to me that she has the urgency and vision,” Bowser said. “And more than that, she wants to be the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and she feels that she has a vision to continue.”
Bowser’s commitment creates another distinction between her and her most active opponent, fellow D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has not said whether he plans to keep Henderson in the job if elected. Catania, who has clashed at times with Henderson in his capacity as chairman of the council’s education committee, reiterated that position in an interview Wednesday.
“I’m not willing to make commitments on personnel in advance of an election,” said Catania, an independent candidate for mayor. “What I’m absolutely committed to is a vision of school improvement that is consistent with the direction we’ve undertaken over the last few years, but with additional emphasis on areas where I still see room for improvement.”
Catania said he is looking for a chancellor who has quantitative goals and realistic plans to deliver on those goals, who is committed to attracting and retaining great principals and teachers, and who is open to involving parents in discussions about school improvement.
“I’m committed to finding the very best person we can to continue our journey of school improvement,” he said. “That may include our current chancellor, or it may not.”
Henderson has built a reputation locally and across the country for continuing many of Rhee’s policies, but with a gentler touch. During Henderson’s tenure, the school system has made some of the largest math and reading gains in the nation, but enormous achievement gaps remain.
Critics fault her for not tackling those gaps more aggressively and for ceding too much territory to the city’s public charter schools, which have steadily increased their share of student enrollment. But supporters credit her with undertaking unsung efforts to transform the school system, including engineering the shift to more rigorous Common Core State Standards. Her continued leadership, they say, is vital to maintaining the city’s educational momentum.
Henderson has said she wants to remain chancellor until at least 2017, when she has promised that the school system will reach five goals for student achievement and satisfaction that she set as benchmarks in 2012.
“If I can meet those goals by 2017, then I will have delivered a very different school district,” Henderson said in April. “And then,” she said, laughing, “I’ll be headed to a beach somewhere because the city will have beaten my good years out of me.”
But Henderson has declined to discuss which mayoral candidates she would consider working for or what commitments she would need from a new boss. On Wednesday morning, she again declined to say whether she would work for a Bowser administration.
“I work for the children of the District of Columbia,” she said on her way into Dunbar’s graduation.
Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the council, said Wednesday that she believes parents across the city are eager for continuity at the top of DCPS, which like many urban districts has seen frequent leadership turnover in recent decades. Bowser also said she believes that Henderson would be willing to work for her administration. “She told me that she wanted to continue to be the DCPS chancellor, yes,” Bowser said.
Bowser announced her commitment to Henderson on Tuesday night in response to a question from someone in the crowd at a meet-and-greet of education activists, said Traci Higgins, former director of labor management for DCPS, who was there. The announcement drew applause, Higgins said.
Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, said he did not know why she chose to make her declaration at that particular forum, but he said she hadn’t been directly asked about Henderson for some time. “Somebody asked her the question, and she answered it,” Shuff said.
Catania’s campaign manager, Ben Young, accused Bowser of making a politically expedient move. “She shifts in the wind, depending on what she thinks the audience and the political circumstances demand,” Young said, pointing to a January debate during which Bowser spoke of “a void in leadership at the top” on education.
Bowser said Wednesday that her earlier criticism was directed at Gray, not the chancellor.
She declined to say whether she would keep another of Gray’s key education officials, the deputy mayor for education, Abigail Smith, who arguably plays an equally important role shaping the future of D.C. schools. Smith is leading the effort to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies for the first time in four decades, a controversial and politically charged initiative.