NOT SO long ago, public schools weren’t talked about much during D.C. political campaigns. What point would there have been? City schools were seen as hopeless. The public didn’t expect much, and candidates didn’t promise much.
It’s a hopeful sign, then, that education is dominating the debate in this year’s races for mayor and the D.C. Council. Reform is beginning to work, and people who had all but given up on the schools are expecting and demanding more.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contest for mayor. A WAMU-FM forum last week that featured the eight candidates in the April 1 Democratic primary focused on education. There was a consensus among the viable candidates that significant progress has been made since 2007, when reform kicked off with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s takeover of the public school system. Every measure — local and national test scores, graduation rates, enrollment, student satisfaction — shows D.C. schools headed in the right direction.
There was also agreement that too many challenges remain unmet. “None of us, myself included, would argue that we should declare victory in our work to improve schools,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told the council’s education committee last week. More than half of students are not proficient in reading or math, according to the most recent local assessments, and a wide achievement gap persists between white and black students.
How to tackle these unmet challenges? First and foremost, don’t waver now from the course of reform established by Ms. Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee. Ms. Henderson has a clear vision of how to build on the strong foundation of school reform, and she should be supported in her efforts to target the system’s lowest-performing schools, lengthen the school day and the school year for students most in need, help English-language learners and put new rigor into middle and high school academics. The importance of Ms. Henderson’s stable, competent leadership cannot be overstated.
It’s also important to look beyond the school system to other city agencies and institutions that must contribute to any education solution. Public charter schools play a strong role, and collaboration needs to continue with the traditional schools in replicating successes and eliminating failures. Attention also should be paid to departments not pulling their weight. These include the problem-plagued Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the mission-challenged University of the District of Columbia and the city’s social services agencies, which should be addressing social and medical issues that can hinder a child’s learning.