Mayoral candidates in Washington, D.C. faced off in a heated debate late last week, offering differing views on improvements for the city’s public school system.
Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser is planning a speedy reform for the District of Columbia. The district has recently fired hundreds of teachers for poor performance according to an older review process set in place by previous chancellor Michelle Rhee. Bowser said she would keep Chancellor Kaya Henderson — Rhee’s successor — in office. The chancellor reports directly to the mayor.
Test scores improved for the district under Rhee and Henderson for both state testing as well as the federal “nation’s report card.” However, large gaps among racial and socioeconomic groups are still a concern.
Independent candidate David Catania referred to Bowser’s record in education as consisting of “little more than empty platitudes.” He went on to suggest Bowser had called for reforms in education but has not introduced any bills of substance on the subject.
“Ms. Bowser, you voted for every one of my measures,” he said. “Every single one.”
Bowser has promised reforms in education for two elections now, and yet has written only one notable bill on the topic, the Kids Ride Free bill, allowing students to ride the public buses to and from school free of charge.
Critics of Bowser see this as a failure to address issues, as well as holding a record with no quality achievements.
A review of Bowser’s political career shows hundreds of bills listing her as the primary author. The bills concerned little-known topics such as regulations for pawn shops, tire outlets, and street vendors. Bowser referred to those bills as those that “affect people’s lives.”
Bowser defended her position on education reforms, stating that she has left that area up to the chancellor.
“You probably won’t see me write education reform legislation,” she said, adding that she has long supported mayoral control of the schools. “I believe you have a great chancellor, you give her the tools that she needs and hold her accountable.”
Catania was unsure if as mayor he would keep Henderson once in office, causing Bowser to react by suggesting Catania showed a lack of commitment.
“The education team should be running our schools,” Bowser said. “We have to have a strong chancellor with a big vision. That’s why I’m supporting moving forward with our schools, not taking a chance on ping-pongs in leadership.”
Catania stated the primary issue in education within the district is school quality, resulting in “morning diaspora,” in which almost 60,000 DC students commute to schools of their choosing rather than attend the public school close to their homes.
In order to combat the issue, Catania suggested a “vertical alignment” between all grades in all schools, so that programming and expectations remain consistent throughout. He would also like to see a standardized program across the district.
Other reforms offered by Catania include providing more funding for at-risk students, as well as guaranteeing aid for higher education for students who graduate from DC-area high schools.
A recently released poll showed Bowser is leading Catania by 17 percentage points, with Carol Schwartz, another independent candidate, 27 points behind Bowser.
The candidates found common ground for other issues discussed during the debate such as building a new soccer stadium, hosting the 2024 Olympics, gun control and concerns facing the city’s homelessness crisis. The issues facing education saw the most heated debate of the night.