On education, Mayor Bowser's talk is too cheap

As DC’s 2022 primary cycle has heated up, one of incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser’s most prominent recurring attacks on her primary opponents, Robert White and Trayon White, has been their distrust of “mayoral control” – a system in which the mayor, rather than an elected school board, has authority over “all education-related matters.” 

According to DCist, Bowser suggested in a June debate that her mayoral control has spurred a level of progress for local schools that her opponents would undo: “One thing we have not done in this city, thanks to our taxpayers, is underfunded education,” she said. “The reason why our taxpayers trust us to do it is because we have mayoral accountability and council oversight.”

When it comes to the health and success of DC Public Schools (DCPS), Bowser’s narrative is simple: through mayoral control, which began in 2007 – and more specifically, her leadership – schools, children, and teachers have benefited. “Committed to Mayoral Leadership of Schools” is quite literally the headline of her campaign’s education platform. Her website reads: 

“She has made various investments towards DCPS including 37 new or renovated schools, 1,000 new high-quality child care seats, 1:1 device distribution for students, opened two new early childhood education centers, created Kids Ride Free Metro program for DC public, charter, and independent schools, and scholarships through the DC Futures Program. Under Muriel’s leadership, public school enrollment and achievement have both increased.

But those assertions – like many Bowser makes regarding her mayorship – gloss over substantial (and substantially worrying) issues that haunt the District’s school system. Throughout the years, the mayor’s own administration’s lack of transparency and effectiveness in managing DCPS throws her claims regarding mayoral control – and her leadership – into question. 

Funding woes

Bowser points to various proposed increases in the DCPS budget, including her most recent one, as evidence that her tenure as mayor has been a strong one for educators, children and families. But funding mishaps, a lack of transparency and a pernicious, technocratic focus on education have dogged her administration for years. 

In July 2019, the Washington Post reported, an audit found that “D.C. continues misspending funds intended for [the] neediest in its schools.” Each year, the District allocates money – on top of existing school funding – to students who are considered “at-risk”: experienceing houselessness, receiving welfare or more than one grade behind in high school. That funding is designed to give at-risk students academic and social support by paying for the necessary staff and/or programming. However, Post reporter Perry Stein wrote, “campuses serving the highest concentrations of students from low-income families experience regular budget cuts, the report found, and the targeted funds are used to plug those financial holes, a violation of city law.”

Stein also reported that “the auditor’s report observed that about 40 percent of schools in the traditional public school system used funds intended for at-risk services to pay for 40 social workers and psychologists whose positions should have been funded through standard budget allocations in fiscal 2018.” In other words, the system Bowser reports to have streamlined is still very much a mess – and students are the ones who suffer. 

Less than two years later, another funding misstep made the news: as reported by NPR, DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee wrote to DC families in April 2020 – the early days of the pandemic – to explain that the school system would “voluntarily relinquish” millions of federal grant dollars for Head Start, “which helps provide preschool for the city's low-income students at no cost.” The loss of funding, which Ferebee attributed to safety concerns – including two specific incidents outlined in the article – cut services and eliminated more than 80 jobs. More than that: it deprived pre-schools of the resources needed to provide for underserved students at a critical time in their lives. As Eboni-Rose Thompson of the Ward 7 Education Council told NPR: "I don't know how you can preserve and ensure quality without making sure schools have adequate resources.” 

The Bowser administration’s lack of transparency and communication only adds more confusion to an already befuddling process. As the Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons recalled in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “in a [DC Council] education spending hearing, the deputy mayor for education refused again and again even to describe spending needs [that] the education system requested but the mayor rejected.” 

Parents, students and teachers all lose out when funding evaporates, and communication goes with it. DC children and families deserve a different standard of investment in their education. 

Poor treatment drives teacher exodus

Speaking of the Washington Teachers’ Union: Bowser’s mayoral control of labor relations has hardly yielded fruitful results for her relationship with area educators – and when educators suffer, so does our education system. 

In October 2018, WAMU reported that, despite inordinately high salaries, the District had an attrition rate far above the national average. 

“Imagine if each year a company lost about a quarter of its staff, and after five years over half the employees were new,” the article reads. “That’s what’s happening with teachers in public schools in D.C., according to a new report commissioned by D.C.’s State Board of Education.”

The reason? According to Chelsea Pink, a former DC charter school teacher quoted in the WAMU story, it’s mainly due to the treatment of teachers. 

“‘[Administrators] being so focused on upward facing data, meaning what is the data going to look like according to the people we report to…then, what are quick fixes to force teachers to comply, and a lot of times that was to the detriment of students and staff culture,’ Pink said, describing her experience.”

The District’s data-driven approach to evaluating public educators – also known as IMPACT – has been covered in the Socialist in the past, by Dylan Craig. In October 2021, Craig wrote:

“Under the current system, educators are held accountable to standards and metrics designed to satisfy that market-based approached to student success, rather than being tailored to address the educational needs of the communities actually served. As a result, educators with potential who need more support and time to hone their craft are often pushed aside or leave in disgust, which contributes to high turnover and a continual influx of less experienced teachers who do not remain for the long haul.” 

That’s not all. In her op-ed, WTU President Poque Lyons noted that the Post itself had previously reported that the “D.C. teacher evaluation system has academic benefits, but is racially biased.” It’s no wonder the WTU endorsed one of Bowser’s rivals, Robert White, instead of the entrenched incumbent.

Kids left behind

Every issue with DCPS’ funding and ability to retain an effective education workforce harms kids and families, particularly working-class students and those of color.

In her op-ed, Poque Lyons illustrates in greater detail some of the specific ways students have been left behind under mayoral control, both that of Bowser and her predecessors. Bowser’s campaign website touts the improved rating of DCPS in The Nation’s Report Card as proof of her success. However, Poque Lyons writes, “The Nation’s Report Card shows gains of D.C.’s wealthy students far exceed those of the most vulnerable students. Under mayoral control, achievement gaps — between Black and White students as well as between rich and poor students — have increased.”

Even more incriminating is Poque Lyons’ description of the state of public schools, particularly considering the ongoing pandemic and the continuing onset of climate change in the District. “Nearly one-third of D.C. schools had heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that were not working properly earlier this year,” Poque Lyons writes, adding: 

“Students in some communities didn’t receive computers until weeks into the school year. The city took months to fill vacant covid-19 coordinator and substitute teaching positions. School communities struggle with budgets that fail to provide the basics for their students. Educators were not provided funds to purchase needed classroom supplies until December.”

Such failures to properly serve and support DC students are damning. If Bowser claims the mantle of leadership for this system, she also has to claim its shortcomings – which are many.

Overall, just like the District’s housing trust, whatever gains the Mayor has made in improving DC’s public education system have been undermined by a callous approach to workers, a disturbing mismanagement of funds, and a disregard for transparency and open communication. Bowser’s talk is one thing – so far, she’s been unable to wholly back it up. 

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