Candidates for the District’s State Board of Education face a key challenge this election season: Five years after the board was created, many voters still aren’t sure exactly what it is or what it does.
“A lot of it is really down in the weeds, and therefore that only helps to obscure what the state board does,” said Ward 2 representative Mary Lord, who faces parent activist Marvin Tucker in a race for the board’s sole at-large seat.
The nine-member nonpartisan board was created by the same 2007 law that established the mayoral takeover of the city school system. The so-called state board replaced a traditional board that oversaw the school system’s facilities, operations and budget, in addition to setting academic policy for the school system.
The state board has a different and often lower-profile mission. Members are responsible for approving policies on academic standards, teacher certification and parent engagement. The board also sets — and is in the midst of revising — city graduation requirements.
Lord, 58, said those are powerful tools to shape the District’s public schools. She acknowledged, however, that it’s a difficult message to deliver to parents and community members who feel they have nowhere to take their immediate concerns.
“But the reality is, the old school board structure didn’t necessarily get kids where they needed to be,” said Lord, a longtime education journalist who has served on the board since its inception and is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Tucker, 54, argues that board members, whatever their legal authority, should use their status as elected officials to be stronger advocates for parents. A parent who was among the first to raise questions about cheating at the Noyes Education Campus, Tucker is a blunt critic of the city’s school reform efforts.
“When they did the reform act, they didn’t help our schools. They destroyed our schools,” said Tucker, a retired plumber who works part time in sales. “At the end of the day, if you’re a parent and you have a problem, you can’t get it solved.”
Besides the at-large race, there are also contested races for the board’s Ward 7 and Ward 8 seats.
In Ward 7, incumbent Dorothy Douglas, a longtime civic activist and perennial candidate for higher office, faces three challengers.
Villareal Johnson, 35, is an advisory neighborhood commissioner who previously worked as a field representative for the Washington Teachers’ Union and now works for an insurance firm.
Karen Williams, 64, is a former special education teacher and U.S. Park Police officer who works as director of Big Mama’s Children’s Center, an early-childhood program in Southeast Washington.
And Robert L. Matthews, 66, is a former teacher and counselor who retired from the District’s Cleveland Elementary School.
One pressing concern for some parents east of the Anacostia River is the impending closure of some D.C. public schools, expected to be announced soon. That’s an issue over which the state board has no control.
Ward 7 parent Greg Rhett said he wishes someone could bring together the disparate authorities that have a hand in city education — including the D.C. Council, the deputy mayor for education, the board for the city’s many charter schools and the chancellor of the D.C. school system — to create a comprehensive plan for schools before any are closed.
“We’ve created a quagmire where everyone’s in charge and no one’s responsible,” Rhett said. “It’s very frustrating.”
The Ward 8 state board race pits incumbent Trayon White, head of a nonprofit organization for at-risk youths, against challenger Philip Pannell, a longtime civic and HIV/AIDS activist.
White, 28, graduated from Ballou Senior High School a decade ago. He says his recent experience as a student struggling to overcome the challenges of life in the city’s poorest ward makes him uniquely qualified to connect with and represent his neighbors.
Pannell says he would bring decades of advocacy experience to the post. A five-time president of the Ward 8 Democrats, he also helped jump-start and sustain a parent organization at Ballou despite having no children in school there.
This is a rematch for the two men, who faced off against each other and seven other candidates in a 2011 special election to replace William O. Lockridge, who died while in office. White won that race by fewer than 200 votes with the endorsement of Lockridge’s widow and D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).
Two other candidates are running unopposed for board seats. Jack Jacobson, a legislative analyst and Dupont Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner, is seeking the Ward 2 seat.
Ward 4 incumbent D. Kamili Anderson, an editor and writer, is seeking reelection. Anderson, 57, joined the board last year in a special election to replace Sekou Biddle.