D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced Tuesday that an education consultant who occupied a top school system post in Philadelphia will serve as the District’s deputy mayor for education — one of the most powerful education jobs in the city.
Paul Kihn is expected to begin in the mayor’s administration Monday. The deputy mayor serves as Bowser’s main education adviser, with responsibility for overseeing policies that stretch across the traditional public and charter school sectors.
Kihn, 52, succeeds Jennifer Niles, who resigned in February after revelations that she helped the school system’s chancellor at the time skirt the competitive lottery so his daughter could transfer to a high school with a long waiting list.
Ahnna Smith has served as interim deputy mayor for education since February. Bowser said she offered Smith a position as a senior adviser in her administration and expects Smith to stay.
Bowser applauded Kihn’s work in the private and public sectors in turning around troubled schools.
“Paul comes to the District with a diverse set of experiences in public education and management,” Bowser told the D.C. Council at a Tuesday breakfast meeting. “He has a fantastic background, including having served as a classroom teacher. He has worked in education and research, and understands the issues teachers and parents face, and he also has the experience putting that research into action.”
The deputy mayor will earn about $207,000 a year, according to Bowser’s office.
Kihn, whose appointment needs D.C. Council approval, starts his job as the District’s traditional and public charter schools reel from controversies and setbacks. A citywide investigation uncovered that one-third of graduates from the traditional system in 2017 received their diplomas in violation of city law, undermining the city’s boast that graduation rates were rising. A few prominent charter schools, including Democracy Prep, have shut down because of poor performance or financial troubles. And the District’s traditional public school system has been leaderless since Antwan Wilson resigned over the placement lottery scandal.
In an interview Monday evening, Bowser appeared confident in Kihn’s ability to bring stability to the schools. She said she selected him because she believes he will help rebuild trust between families and the schools by ensuring that information on graduation rates and test scores is reliable.
After the graduation scandal, critics argued that because the mayor has so much power over the education system, it has become easier to present data in the best light — even if the data does not always accurately reflect challenges confronting the school system.
The D.C. Council is considering a measure that would establish an independent education research initiative in the D.C. auditor’s office — a measure Bowser said she opposes. Another proposal would make the state superintendent of education, whose office oversees the traditional and charter public school networks, more independent from the mayor. Now, the state superintendent reports directly to the mayor.
“Paul brings a great strength in helping us look at data integrity,” Bowser said. “The first thing that Paul said he would bring is helping rebuild trust between students and parents in the quality of data that we are sharing.”
Kihn worked as a public school teacher in New York for three years. He later became a partner in the education division of the consultancy McKinsey & Company.
Kihn said Monday that he could not reveal his clients at the firm but said he worked with school districts, state agencies and education philanthropies throughout the country. He said he tackled diverse challenges, including financial and organizational matters. Kihn said he also addressed graduation rates, attendance issues and charter school affairs.
“I served over a dozen school districts,” Kihn said. “Districts came to us with their most intractable challenges.”
From 2012 to 2015, Kihn was deputy superintendent at the School District of Philadelphia. At the time, the cash-strapped system’s enrollment was plunging. Kihn was a top school official when the city closed 10 percent of the public schools and laid off thousands of employees — a decision met with widespread backlash. But the school system has become more stable since these cuts.
In Philadelphia, he led an initiative that turned failing schools in the traditional system over to charter operators, according to the Notebook, a local Philadelphia education news website. After leaving the Philadelphia system, Kihn returned to consulting.
Kihn has written about his philosophies in education publications and blogs, arguing in a 2016 Education Week article that traditional public schools need to focus on specialties so that they can compete with charter schools. Each school, he wrote, cannot serve the needs of every student. He said in an interview that he is a proponent of the traditional school system but that in cities with robust charter systems, it’s important to examine how the role of neighborhood schools has changed.
“Districts remain the de facto operators of schools of last resort; they’ve got to specialize here, even at the expense of other work, if needed,” he wrote.
Kihn lives in the District, and his children attend Washington International School, a private school in Northwest Washington.
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.