The day after Vincent C. Gray defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2010, then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee warned that the election results would be “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.”
Rhee had introduced a controversial approach to education reform that included closing dozens of schools, firing hundreds of teachers and focusing intensely on test scores. Her remark about Gray’s victory in the Democratic primary crystallized her supporters’ fear, which happened to coincide with her opponents’ hope: that Gray, then chairman of the D.C. Council and a fierce critic of Rhee’s brash leadership style, would undo what she and Fenty had set in motion.
Gray has done no such thing. He has given his chancellor, former Rhee deputy Kaya Henderson, broad authority to run the school system, and the two have continued the policies of their predecessors, though often with a softer touch.
Now Gray is seeking a second term as mayor. And as he attempts to deflect allegations that he knew of secret, off-the-books campaign donations that helped him win a first term four years ago, he often points to education as a bright spot in his record. Enrollment is growing, test scores are improving and — six years after Gray authored a bill expanding access to early childhood education — the city leads the nation in the proportion of preschoolers in public pre-kindergarten.
But the city’s long-struggling schools are still below par by many measures, leaving room for criticism on multiple fronts: the state of middle schools and special-education services, inequities in the funding of charter and traditional schools, and the enormous — and in some cases growing — gaps in academic achievement between needy and well-to-do children.
The city’s math and reading scores on a national test administered to fourth- and eighth-graders improved faster between 2011 and 2013 than those of any state or any other large city. “Mayor Gray and D.C. have knocked the ball out of the park,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently.
Gray often calls attention to the test scores — and Duncan’s quote — as he traverses the city seeking voters’ support, and he did so again Tuesday night during his State of the District address.
“These gains are real, they cut across lines of race, geography and class, and they are worth celebrating,” Gray said. “They prove that we are on the right track — a track we need to stay on, to double down on, to accelerate on, until every child in the District gets the world-class education they deserve.”
Although it’s true that the city has made impressive test-score gains, the District still trails the national averages in math and reading performance. After seven years of high-profile school-improvement efforts, low-income African American children continue to perform worse than their counterparts in other cities, and the average scores of black fourth-graders in the city’s traditional school system have not budged.
In some cases, the achievement gaps between the city’s poor and affluent children and between white and black students are growing.
Even gaps that are narrowing are doing so slowly: In 2007, 9 percent of the city’s black fourth-graders scored well enough to be considered proficient in reading, compared with 74 percent of white students. In 2013, those numbers had climbed to 15 percent and 77 percent, respectively.
That has left Gray’s claims of progress open to the argument that the schools appear to be doing better because they are drawing more high-scoring children from white and affluent families and that they continue to fail the city’s neediest children. “The improvements appear to be more driven by demographic shifts than by absolute improvement,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the Education Committee chairman and a newly declared candidate for mayor.
Gray acknowledged the achievement gaps Tuesday and proposed a new investment in public education of more than $100 million. Most of that would be dedicated to services for at-risk students, adopting a key recommendation of a study released by Gray’s administration this year.
Catania, who began pushing for additional funding for at-risk students last spring and authored a successful bill requiring it, said he welcomed Gray’s proposal but wondered why it hadn’t come sooner. “We’ve had this mayor for four years, and until I became chairman of the Committee on Education, the whole subject was more or less on pause,” he said.
Gray campaigned in 2010 on the promise that he and his chancellor would bring a more collaborative and transparent approach to education policy than had Fenty and Rhee, whose critics saw them as imperious, insensitive and closed-off.
Gray’s pledge won him the support of the teachers union and its members and of frustrated parents, who saw an opening to pursue a different kind of school reform. Union activists also believed — based on his frequent public criticism of Rhee — that he would rehire teachers Rhee had fired and would reexamine the teacher evaluation system she had launched.
“Gray made promises that he would be different — more transparent, more collaborative, ensuring stakeholders were included in conversations about education. And that was attractive to me,” said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. “But I don’t think he has done anything to dismantle this top-down management that Chancellor Rhee brought to D.C.”
Gray declined to be interviewed for this story. But members of his administration say union officials are simply disappointed that Gray hasn’t adopted the policies they hoped he would, pointing out that Henderson has taken pains to solicit more input than her predecessor did.
For example, Henderson attended each of the public meetings held across the city last year to gather feedback on a plan to close 20 schools. When Rhee closed 23 schools, the public meetings were all scheduled for the same evening, spreading school officials thin and leaving residents furious.
Henderson said that Gray had not objected to Rhee’s policies, only to her style, and that he wanted a chancellor who could make changes without making waves.
“The mayor is unequivocal in his support for me,” said Henderson, adding that community feedback has shaped her decisions about school closures, budget priorities and other issues.
Still, some parents and activists say that they don’t feel they have a way to make themselves heard and that they wonder whether Henderson’s outreach efforts are sincere or for show.
Others say Gray has failed to make good on his promise to bring transparency to the school system’s budget. Gray promised in 2010 to undertake a forensic audit of the school system’s books, but that hasn’t been done. The system has taken some steps to publish more information online, but the budget remains difficult even for experts to interpret, longtime schools watchdog Mary Levy said.
“One of the things Gray was very critical about is the opaqueness of the budget, and that hasn’t changed,” Levy said.
Gray promised in 2010 to have excellent middle schools and high schools in every part of the city. Four years later, many parents continue to abandon city schools as their children grow older, frustrated with the still-uneven quality of academics and extracurriculars.
The growing clamor for stronger middle schools has created an opening for Gray’s critics, including D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who appears to be the front-running challenger in the April 1 primary.
“There’s been a void of leadership at the top,” Bowser said at a recent WAMU (88.5 FM) forum. She said the Fenty era’s “tremendous heat and light” on education reform had faded under Gray.
Henderson committed this week to investing an additional $17 million next year to strengthen middle schools, calling it one of her top three budget priorities. But she and Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education, said the Gray administration has made important, if quiet, investments in secondary education, pointing to new gifted-education programs at several middle schools and a rapid increase in the number of Advanced Placement courses at city high schools.
“Have we arrived? No,” Smith said. “But the notion that middle and high schools are resting on their laurels . . . it’s really unfair.”
The District’s special education services have been broken for decades, but Gray’s administration hit a milestone in late 2012, when a federal judge dismissed a 17-year lawsuit over the transportation of D.C. students with disabilities, giving the city final approval to control its school buses.
Gray also has broadened the number of children younger than 3 who are eligible for special education services, widely seen as an important step toward preparing those children to enter kindergarten with their peers. In addition, the District is adding special education classrooms and — according to a court-appointed monitor in a long-running class-action lawsuit — doing a better job of evaluating students and delivering services in a timely fashion.
But the city has long-standing problems complying with federal special education law; federal officials still consider the city a “high-risk” grantee in need of additional monitoring and oversight; and the city’s special education programs have not fully emerged from court supervision.
There are also questions about Gray’s effort to cut in half the number of special education students who attend private schools at taxpayer expense because public schools are deemed incapable of meeting their needs.
Parents and their advocates argue that although the move has saved tens of millions of dollars, city schools do not adequately serve the returning students. That concern was echoed in a 2013 review of the city’s special education services conducted by the American Institutes of Research. “When those children came back, we were not prepared,” a school employee told institute researchers, adding that teachers had not received additional training or resources.
Gray was elected with the support of many charter school advocates, and he often hails charter schools as important to the city’s progress on education. Charter and traditional schools have collaborated more closely during his tenure and recently launched a joint lottery meant to simplify the enrollment process for parents.
Gray also has moved faster than his predecessor to lease vacant public school buildings to charters, which often struggle to find suitable real estate.
But some charter school advocates say they wish he had done more to deliver on a campaign promise of uniform funding for charter and traditional schools, which is required by law.
The city has long supplemented the traditional school system’s budget with services provided by other agencies — such as building maintenance and legal work — worth tens of millions of dollars a year.
Gray “made many statements during his campaign that he was going to help charter schools get equitable funding,” said Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter school advocacy group FOCUS. “And the charter school community’s hopes have been dashed there, without question.”
Community activists have repeatedly pressed for a comprehensive plan that would knit together charter and traditional schools so that expansion occurs where it is most needed, instead of haphazardly, and so that students across the city have access to excellent schools and have a clear path from elementary through high school.
No such plan exists, but Gray’s administration is, perhaps, taking a first step in that direction as it begins the first overhaul of school boundaries and student assignment policies in more than 40 years.
Although much of Gray’s education policy follows a track laid by Fenty, this effort is new.
The boundary overhaul has the potential to ripple across real estate markets and neighborhoods, limiting access to some of the city’s most sought-after schools. It’s an enormous undertaking that could shape city schools for years to come. And it is rife with tensions over race and class in a historically segregated, fast-gentrifying city.
The process is also sure to displease many voters. Smith, who is heading up the effort, said she asked Gray before starting whether he was sure he wanted to dive in during an election year.
“He said, ‘It has to be done,’ ” Smith said. “To me, this is the definition of political courage.”