Another resolution — which ran into potentially fatal opposition Monday — would create a special committee on the D.C. Council to explore the effectiveness of the city’s education governance structure.
In 2007, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took control of the school system from an elected school board.
School systems in some other cities, including Chicago and New York, have a similar governance structure, in which the schools chancellor and school leaders report to the mayor or a school board with members whom the mayor appoints, rather than an elected school board. But in D.C., the mayor also serves as the governor, so the state superintendent and the schools chancellor report to the mayor. In other places, a gubernatorial state education agency oversees the local school districts.
The D.C. Council can pass education-related laws and shape the city’s education budget, but school leaders do not report to the legislative body and members have little power over schools’ operations.
But these latest measures are expected to face tough opposition from the mayor and her allies, on and off the council. In 2018, when the council introduced a similar measure to give the superintendent more independence, the mayor opposed it and the legislation never received a vote.
One of the most contentious measures is D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr.’s resolution to create the special committee. When White (D-At Large) announced the proposal last week, he cited the city’s wide achievement gaps between students of color and White students as an impetus to explore whether mayor control is working. He said the city has failed the majority of the students it serves.
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has already objected to the resolution, and on Monday he said that White could not introduce it and that he has no authority to create a special committee.
White said he disagrees with Mendelson’s assessment but would not fight it. Instead, he said, he is seeking other avenues to ensure this discussion happens on the council.
“We do have an obligation to focus urgently on what is not working so we can fix it,” White said. “A special committee gives us the opportunity to do that in the light of day and include everyone who should be part of that conversation.”
The prospect of this special committee to discuss the effectiveness of mayoral control already drew a rebuke from many charter school leaders, who wrote letters to the council opposing it. But the Washington Teachers’ Union and other education advocacy groups have supported it, viewing mayoral control as an obstacle to having residents’ and teachers’ voices affect public officials’ actions on education.
“As a teacher, I want to be able to go to my school board meeting, a council meeting, and be able to talk to someone who has the power to not just listen but to do something about the education issues in our city,” said Ben Williams, a Capital City Public Charter School high school teacher.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) both introduced legislation that would remove the Office of the State Superintendent of Education from the mayor’s control. Cheh’s legislation would allow the mayor to still appoint the superintendent, but that office would be an independent agency. Cheh said the bill would also strengthen the agency’s oversight authority, directing it to audit school data and investigate fraud. A majority of council members — seven — have already signed on as co-introducers.
George’s bill would have the superintendent and the agency report to the State Board of Education, an elected board that currently wields little power. The board would also appoint the superintendent. The legislation also includes a provision that would allow teachers in the traditional public school system to run for school board seats. Currently, only charter school teachers are allowed to serve on the board.
Mendelson said he believes the city should explore giving the superintendent more independence from the mayor and said he expects to schedule hearings on the measures later this year. Based on public input at the hearings, the council probably would decide on whether Cheh or George’s strategy makes more sense, according to Cheh.
Cheh said she still supports mayoral control but believes there should be more oversight of education.
“I think mayoral control is the way we should continue to operate,” Cheh said. “But it does not mean mayoral control without checks and balances. The last thing I would hope for the District of Columbia is to ever go back to a school board control of the schools. That was a nightmare.”
D.C. Council members have introduced a number of education-related bills in recent weeks. One from Cheh would require the school system to create individual education plans for every student behind in school. The legislation would also create an Office of Graduate Support within the school system to identify recent high school graduates who are struggling in college or the workforce and provide assistance.
George introduced legislation on Feb. 16 that would require the school system to convene a committee to develop a technology plan that would be updated every three years. On Feb. 23, Cheh reintroduced legislation that would require the deputy mayor of education to complete a study of parent-teacher organizations to better understand how wealthier schools are using private fundraising to fill in budget gaps.