Over the last few months, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has poured resources into public education and public safety as a show of her commitment to curbing violent crime and improving the quality of education in the District.
However, her effectiveness, and more significantly her sincerity given this being an election year, have been called into question by none other than those jockeying for her position.
As the District inches closer to the June 21 Democratic primary, mayoral candidates Andre D. Davis, D.C. Council members Robert White (D-At large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and James Butler continue to make the case that they’re better suited for the job of running the District.
On the campaign trail, (Robert) White often reflects on his experience as a father and elected official who interacts with teachers, students and parents dissatisfied with the Bowser administration. Whether at the Ward 7 Democrats’ Candidate Forum for Mayor or more recently the DC Education Coalition for Change [DECC] Mayoral Forum on Education, he speaks about the now-shuttered Washington Metropolitan High School and the students who unsuccessfully attempted to keep it open in 2020.
He said that situation, among others, shows Bowser, who has unilateral control of the education system, doesn’t include community members in her policy decisions.
“The mayor hasn’t closed the gap [and] she hasn’t solved one problem in our schools. That means we have a leadership problem and I’m here to fix that problem,” White recently said at DECC’s Forum, held at Cardozo Education Campus [EC] in Northwest.
In January, White released a community safety plan that included proposals to designate drug use as a mental health issue and expand youth behavioral health services. White’s plan also touts investments for special needs students and out-of-school time programming. At the DECC forum, he doubled down on some of these points while arguing that Bowser has neither embraced community members nor properly utilized public funds to address students’ problems.
“This is what happens when we have a mayor who shows up for ribbon cuttings but is absent when students at Roosevelt wear coats to class and students at Whittier walk in puddles,” White said. “The mayor got a lot of national traction painting Black Lives Matter but Black students are five grade levels behind [their counterparts]. We need a mayor not hiding behind slogans.”
Bowser Among Those Absent from Recent Debate
Days after the DECC forum, the DC Board of Elections released a June 21 Democratic Primary ballot that didn’t include Davis’ name. At the time of this article’s filing, Davis didn’t indicate his plan of action moving forward.
While both at-large Council member White and Davis attended the March 23 Forum, DECC members said Bowser did not respond to the invitation. They also said Ward 8 Council member White, who initially accepted the invitation, later alerted organizers to his probable absence. Butler, who also didn’t attend, told The Informer he had a scheduling conflict.
Several dozen students, parents, educators and community members listened to and later participated in nearly two hours of dialogue. Issues that Davis and (Robert) White weighed in on included: policing in schools, the IMPACT teacher evaluation, mayoral control of schools, the STAR framework, the expansion of in-school behavioral health services, D.C.’s safe passage program and whether to make the Office of the State Superintendent of Education [OSSE] an independent institution.
Davis, a fourth-generation District resident and former educator, touted his on-the-ground experience as a DC Public Schools [DCPS] teacher and Washington Teachers’ Union building representative. Throughout the forum, he expressed opposition to the IMPACT teacher evaluation and the STAR rating system, both of which hinge on students’ PARCC test scores.
In speaking against IMPACT and the STAR framework, Davis said the former has forced teachers to leave the profession in great numbers while the latter, which assigns a certain number of stars to each school, decreases neighborhood school pride.
Davis later expressed support for after-school programs, teacher mental health days and investments that improve the quality of neighborhood schools and encourage educators to live closer to their jobs. In regard to oversight, Davis said he opposed legislation currently before the D.C. Council that makes the OSSE independent. Instead, he called for parents, students and teachers to collaborate on oversight.
“We want members of the community to be anchored in the community and their school is the place to be,” Davis said. “We moved so far from having school pride because of policies and initiatives we had with mayoral control. It’s taken pride out of the neighborhoods. The most affluent neighborhoods are based around community. We know who teachers are and we know what’s going on. That creates accountability, communication and trust.”
Council member Trayon White Outlines Vision for Education
In the months since District students fully returned to in-person learning, community members have criticized what they described as DCPS central office’s lack of transparency. This happened amid alleged gaps in COVID mitigation and infrastructural problems in some DCPS schools and a winter COVID spike. Stakeholders also continued conversations about equity as it pertains to technological access, IMPACT teacher evaluations and the STAR framework.
As the District continues to grapple with violent crime at levels not seen in several years, residents of various backgrounds differ on how best to maintain public safety. While some advocate for an increase in law enforcement resources, others continue to press for wraparound services and resources that improve quality of life.
Though Ward 8 Council member White commended Bowser for her education and public safety investments, he said the ideal mayor must show a long-term commitment to tackling violent crime and its underlying causes. He cited Building Blocks, a multi-agency response to violent crime, as an instance where Bowser’s vision fizzled after only a few months.
White outlined an education and public safety platform that centers on the infusion of jobs, behavioral health services and academic enrichment in areas most affected by violent crime. He also spoke about using government funds to bolster out-of-school time programming, better connect students to college and career opportunities and revive community-based enrichment programs that have been phased out in recent years.
He said this would add to his work on the D.C. Council, the most recent of which involved introduction of legislation that redefines daily attendance in favor of students designated as chronically at-risk.
“The foundation of any thriving community is a strong education system and strong families,” White said. “We have to connect these agencies. Right now we are using $15 million for violence prevention but [those preventing violence] don’t go into the schools. What happens in the community spills into the schools, and what happens in the schools spills into the community. If there’s no communication, it’s fragmented and we’re playing catch up.”
Butler Seeks System of Uniformity, Criticizes Opponents
Enrollment in DCPS had dropped over the last two years. Education officials have attributed the decrease to more families choosing to homeschool, fewer young people enrolling in Pre-K programs and an increase in charter school enrollment.
At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, there had even been some ruminations about how COVID fears kept families from sending their children back to school. Months later, some people, including Butler, continue to criticize public officials, including some of his opponents, who he said had ample time to solve many of D.C.’s problems.
Butler, who also ran for mayor in 2018, follows many of his fellow mayoral candidates in his support for relinquishing the mayor’s control of District public schools. He also expressed plans to synchronize District public and public charter schools and revamp D.C.’s per-pupil formula so that underfunded schools receive additional resources for subject areas giving students the most trouble.
In terms of public safety, Butler and Bowser stand as the lone voices wanting to keep police in schools. However, Butler wants community-based policing in conjunction with a safe passage program that makes students feel safer. Doing so, he said, can do wonders in improving their mental health and curbing activity that often gets confused for conventional adolescent angst.
“The pandemic forced us to see where our most vulnerable students are in our school systems and it showed us the rifts and disparities existing,” Butler said. “Some of that we’ve seen because of the political influence of mayoral control. I want to make sure our D.C. public schools are on the same page as our charter schools. We can create a uniform oversight body to ensure DCPS is in sync with charter schools. It builds further on what OSSE is doing.”