Some D.C. lawmakers want to curtail mayoral control of the city’s education system — a move that could blunt criticism that the D.C. Council has done little to hold Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) accountable after high-profile school scandals this year.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, said he plans to introduce legislation on Tuesday that would make it harder for the mayor to fire the superintendent of education, a top schools official who oversees the traditional public and charter sectors.
The mayor would still appoint the superintendent, but Grosso said he hopes his legislation ensures that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is not politicized.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) is backing the measure, signaling that the legislation could receive robust support from the 13-member council. Grosso’s proposal would increase the superintendent’s term from four to six years.
Bowser appointed Hanseul Kang as state superintendent of education in 2015.
“I have looked for every angle I can to try and remove politics from education policies in the city, and this is one more step toward making that happen,” Grosso said. “Any mayor, and not just this mayor, would have some sort of self-interest in controlling how information, and what information, gets out.”
The measure comes as the District reels from a graduation scandal after a city investigation revealed that one in three D.C. Public Schools graduates in 2017 received their diplomas in violation of city policy. The superintendent’s office oversaw that investigation.
Another city investigation — also led by the superintendent’s office — determined in May that a significant segment of the student body at the renowned Duke Ellington School of the Arts appeared to live outside the District without paying the tuition required of suburbanites.
Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) wants to go further than Grosso, planning to introduce her own measure Tuesday. She is calling for the mayor to be stripped of the power to appoint the superintendent, giving that authority instead to the State Board of Education, an elected nine-member panel.
“In the scheme of things, I am very concerned about concentrating all power in single hands,” Cheh said. “By giving the appointment authority to the board, it highlights the independence of the superintendent’s office, and the board is much more in touch with the citizens because they are elected by their constituents.”
Critics of how the District’s education system is structured have long lamented the lack of an independent check on the mayor. In addition to choosing the superintendent, the mayor also appoints the chancellor of the traditional public school system, the deputy mayor for education and members of the board that oversees charter schools.
Under Grosso’s proposal, the mayor could fire the superintendent only for egregious offenses, including breaking the law.
The mayor referred requests for comment to her interim deputy mayor for education, Ahnna Smith.
“The students of the District of Columbia can ill afford misguided education legislation that moves our city backwards more than a decade and undermines the hard work of our teachers, administrators and staff,” Smith said in a statement.
The superintendent’s office serves as the equivalent of a state education department and acts as a liaison between the federal government and the local schools, ensuring that the city is complying with federal laws and meeting requirements for federal grants. It is responsible for transporting special-education students to school and administering standardized exams.
Ruth Wattenberg, the Ward 3 representative on the State Board of Education and critic of the extent of the mayor’s control of schools, said the structure of D.C. schools needs to be overhauled, and hopes the proposals spur public conversation.
Until 2007, the elected school board managed the school system. But the mayor at the time, Adrian Fenty, pushed through legislation that limited the school board’s power and handed control of schools to the mayor.
“It’s about checks and balances, and that’s the key here,” Wattenberg said. “We need to figure out how there can be checks and balances in the way we run education in the city. So let’s take a look.”
Cheh’s proposal would require the superintendent’s office to verify data the D.C. school system releases and investigate inaccurate or misleading numbers. Cheh introduced legislation in April that would establish an independent research arm of the government focused on education data and rebuilding trust in the District’s public schools.
She said she is still pushing for that independent research consortium.