WASHINGTON — The education crisis unfolding before Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser is the stuff of nightmares for a big city mayor in an election year.
She had to oust her highest-profile appointment, Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, last week under pressure from lawmakers and parents outraged after he violated his own policies to place his daughter in a sought-after school with a wait list of more than 600 families. The school system is already under federal investigation amid revelations that one-third of high school diplomas handed out last year were improperly awarded. Parents fed up with the scandals are questioning Bowser’s leadership.
They are the kind of issues ripe for campaign debate. But with no credible challenger and the filing deadline less than a month away, Bowser seems insulated from voter backlash at the polls.
“In ordinary times, this would probably be a big deal, and the opponent or opponents would try to exploit it for what it’s worth,” said Democratic city council member Mary Cheh, a frequent critic of the mayor. “But there’s a longer game here: The mayor cares a lot about how effective she is and whether she’s able to accomplish her goals. To the extent she’s seen as unable to do that, it will hurt her over the long term.”
Former Democratic mayor Adrian Fenty, a mentor to Bowser, engineered an education overhaul a decade ago that placed the school system under mayoral control.
But as Bowser continues to try to tout D.C. Public Schools as a national model for education reform, council members are questioning the gains made in recent years. And at least one — Democrat Trayon White Sr. — has called for returning authority over the schools to an elected school board.
Several other lawmakers are demanding a larger role in choosing the next chancellor and greater oversight of the system. Independent council member David Grosso, who chairs the education committee, asked the Bowser administration last week to expand the probe of high school graduation rates to include charter schools, as well as the attendance and grade promotion policies at elementary and middle schools.
“They’ve run out of time on the promise made 10 years ago, and I don’t want to lose another generation, let alone another class year,” said Democratic Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “I’m hopeful all of the council members will join me in turning up the heat, given that we slipped back with recent events.”
Improvement at D.C. Public Schools is central to Bowser’s campaign message of a thriving city. Her campaign website cites rising test scores and graduation rates first on a list of accomplishments.
Bowser’s influence over the school system grew last year when she handpicked Wilson to replace outgoing chancellor Kaya Henderson, a holdover from the past administration. She touted him as the best choice to fix the persistent achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
But the events that triggered Wilson’s resignation began when the mayor announced on the eve of a three-day weekend that the schools chancellor used his position to win a special school placement for his daughter at Wilson High School in Northwest, just months after he banned the practice for city officials because of an earlier scandal involving politically connected officials bypassing the city’s school lottery.
Bowser stood by him, insisting that she remained confident in his ability to lead, even as she accepted the resignation of Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles for her role in approving the transfer for Wilson’s daughter. The inconsistency of bidding goodbye to Niles while appearing to protect Wilson puzzled many observers.
The mayor apparently underestimated the public outrage that would follow. Parents were livid that the head of the school system circumvented the city’s lottery system, which thousands of families enter each year to try to win a small number of seats at preferred schools.
One by one, council members called for Wilson’s ouster until a majority of the 13-member body were demanding his resignation by Tuesday morning. Backed into a corner, Bowser sacked Wilson hours later. But her delay only heightened the anger of some parents.
“I’m still concerned that city leadership had to be pushed to recognize something that was so obviously wrong: He wrote the rule and then broke it,” said Danica Petroshius, a Capitol Hill resident and mother of two children in public elementary schools. “The mayor didn’t recognize how enraged parents will be by that.”
Education activist Eboni-Rose Thompson watched Bowser’s news conference announcing Wilson’s resignation and thought she was trying to minimize the scandal.
In a brief interview this week, Bowser said she hadn’t heard such frustrations from parents.
“People recognize there were mistakes made, there were consequences for the mistakes, they feel good we have an interim chancellor with 20 years of experience in D.C. public schools … and they are ready to rally behind her for a strong finish to the year,” Bowser said.
Bill Lightfoot, who chairs Bowser’s reelection campaign, predicted that lingering voter frustrations would subside.
“The crisis itself could have — did — incite people’s passions and could have had a political backlash,” Lightfoot said. “But it’s to the mayor’s credit that she promptly resolved a highly emotional problem. She did what voters expect the mayor to do.”
Political observers were similarly doubtful whether a voter rebellion would materialize.
“Education, while it’s super important, is something that resonates viscerally with a small number of people,” said Michael Fauntroy, a professor of political science at Howard University. “More immediately, it’s going to create more aggressive oversight of her administration.”
But Mark Plotkin, a D.C. political activist and commentator, said frustrations over Bowser’s delay in sacking Wilson could be part of a challenger’s case against the incumbent.
“You can feel a sense of outrage, you could see a candidate making her responsible for these things,” Plotkin said. “But there’s no natural inheritor of what is widespread disgust. So who is the beneficiary? Who gets the political advantage of it if there’s not another a name on the ballot?”