D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser could have chosen an insider to be the next chief of D.C. Public Schools, someone steeped in the personalities and policies of the past nine years that ushered in sweeping changes and turned the nation’s capital into a closely watched experiment in urban education reform.
Instead, she chose to nominate an outsider — Antwan Wilson, the superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif. — signaling her desire for a new approach to some of the city’s most intransigent problems, including the persistent achievement gap between children living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods and those in the most affluent.
In selecting Wilson, Bowser (D) is not seeking a dramatic change in direction. Wilson comes from the same education reform circles as the two previous chancellors, Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee. Wilson said that he has admired and at times emulated their approach, and that in coming to the District he wants to build on the work that has been done — not blow it up and start over.
The District’s 48,000-student school system has in recent years shed its long-standing reputation for dysfunction, becoming one of the fastest-improving districts in the nation, according to math and reading test results.
“This is an opportunity to double down on all the things that have been proven to work here,” Wilson said during a news conference on Tuesday at Eastern High School, where he was formally introduced to the community. “The fact is that there has been an excellent team here led by tremendous educators.”
Bowser called Wilson a “proven manager” and “education leader” who can step in as chancellor without missing a beat.
She said he meets the expectations that parents and community members have expressed: “They wanted someone who was bold and strategic and open and transparent, and always out into the community and focused on closing the achievement gap,” Bowser said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We think Antwan really embodies all of those things.”
The mayor’s pick for schools chancellor is one of her most politically consequential decisions, and it shows a willingness to take a chance: No elected official or business leader wants to endanger the school system’s recent successes, which have proved to be an increasing draw for the city’s middle-class families.
D.C. Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said that he pressed the mayor to find a candidate who could attack the city’s wide achievement gaps with new intensity, but without causing disruption that could set the system back.
“You need to both keep the trains running on time and have a certain amount of shake-up,” Grosso said. “I don’t think there is a big pool of people out there who can do that. But I think this guy has demonstrated a real passion to do that, and has shown he can do that.”
Wilson, 44, is a career educator who taught in North Carolina and Kansas before spending most of a decade in Denver, where he specialized in turning around struggling schools.
He received leadership training at the Broad Academy, an initiative to support urban school superintendents funded by billionaire philanthropist and charter school backer Eli Broad. Wilson also is a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of school leaders that generally embraces charter schools and test-based accountability for schools and teachers.
He has said he knows that needy children can beat the odds, pointing to himself as an example. He grew up with a single mother, attending 10 schools and living in 15 homes during his academic career.
“And yet, after all that, I am here,” he said, crediting teachers with changing his life. “I know that it is possible for young people to be successful.”
U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said he was encouraged by Wilson’s nomination. “Antwan has a reputation for using a comprehensive equity agenda to help increase student achievement and elevate social emotional learning, a focus I am hopeful he will bring to DCPS as the district works to close achievement gaps,” King said in a statement.
Wilson was hired in Oakland in 2014 as the district was wrestling with debt after it fell into state receivership from 2003 to 2009. During his 2½ years there, graduation rates rose, suspension rates fell and the district’s fiscal outlook improved.
“Antwan was able to take something and make it really meaningful in terms of outcomes for young people,” said Jumoke Hinton Hodge, a member of the Oakland school board. “He’s a bold leader, not afraid to lead at all.”
But Wilson’s overhaul of special education services, which he framed as an effort to bring children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, drew resistance from parents. His friendly stance toward charter schools stoked fierce objections from parents and teachers who accused him of trying to privatize public schools.
Kim Davis of Parents United for Public Schools, who is an activist and frequent critic of Wilson, pointed to an enrollment decline in the system’s traditional schools as evidence that his leadership was lacking. “It seems to me that one of the basic responsibilities of a superintendent is to support a district in a way that it can grow, and that has not happened since Superintendent Wilson has been here,” she said.
Oakland and the District are both grappling with the effects of rapid gentrification, and their school systems face similar challenges, including low math and reading performance and graduation rates considerably below the national average. About three-quarters of students in both districts qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.
But charter schools have a much larger market share in Washington — close to half of public school students — and have become an accepted fact of life for city officials. Bowser’s administration has made a priority of improving collaboration between the two sectors.
Wilson said he welcomes the emphasis on working with charters rather than going to battle.
“Regardless of whether a student is in a charter school or a district-run school, we need to make sure that the student is getting a great education,” he told The Post.
The D.C. Council plans to hold three hearings on Wilson’s nomination — on Nov. 30, Dec. 5 and Dec. 8 — before voting on his confirmation. He is expected to start on Feb. 1, with an annual salary of $280,000, a $14,000 signing bonus and the potential for a performance bonus of 10 percent — or $28,000 — the following school year.
Wilson, who is African American, arrives at a time when Bowser is focused on improving outcomes for young black men, whose test scores and graduation rates lag city averages. Wilson said he wants to bring a new emphasis on social-emotional learning, summer programs and in-school tutoring to help lift achievement.
He also will face the task of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union; the union’s previous contract expired in 2012 and has yet to be replaced. Wilson has experience in this realm, as he reached the district’s first multiyear agreement with the Oakland union in nearly a decade, giving teachers a 14 percent raise over 18 months in 2015.
He might start at a disadvantage with the Washington Teachers’ Union, whose president, Elizabeth Davis, accused Bowser of violating a city law that requires her to solicit input on the hiring of a chancellor from a panel of community members. Davis, who serves on that panel, said she didn’t know Wilson was under consideration and had not seen his résumé until she and other panelists were informed of his selection on Tuesday.
Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris disputed Davis’s allegation. “We received and solicited the committee’s full input in compliance with the law and used it to inform this critical selection for our children’s future,” he said.
Grosso, the D.C. Council’s education committee chairman, credited Bowser with running a hiring process that was more open to community input than the hiring of either Henderson or Rhee. But he said Wilson will improve upon his predecessors’ efforts to sincerely engage community members in decisions affecting the schools.
Critics in Oakland, including teachers and parents, have accused Wilson of acting quickly and unilaterally in an effort to push through big changes. “Decisions are made and there are engagements afterward to sell the decisions to the public,” said Kim Davis, the parent activist, who added that Wilson had set in motion disruptive changes that he now won’t see through.
Wilson said he has tried to forge a connection with his community, making himself available to teachers and parents weekly. He said he plans to continue that openness in the District, where mayoral control means there are no school board meetings to give the public regular access to school system leaders.
Wilson is married with three children, who he said would attend public schools in the District. He said that when deciding whether to take the job he talked with his 14-year-old daughter because she had moved to Oakland for his job there and he wanted to make sure that it was something she could support. Her response, Wilson said: “Dad, absolutely, you should go for it.”