Public education issue the lynchpin for mayoral candidates

Early voting photograph. D.C. mayoral candidate, Carol Schwartz, speaks with FOX5 outside the Judiciary Square polling station on the first day of early polling.

By Lex Loro, Teta Alim and Brianna Williams 

D.C. mayoral race
D.C. mayoral candidate, Carol Schwartz, speaks with FOX5 outside the Judiciary Square polling station on the first day of early polling.

Voters, parents, educators and students turned out to the polls Oct. 20 for the first day of early voting in the District of Columbia’s general election, looking towards the mayoral candidates for support in education reform.

Education has been a hot button issue throughout the campaign season, and now with less than a week remaining before Election Day on Nov. 4, voters are continuing to question the candidates’ education platforms, especially in regards to equality. But it will take more than candidate promises for Cuneyt Dil, a student at American University and a former student of D.C. public schools.

“I think the mayor needs the vision to have a strong idea of how to improve schools,” Dil said. “They all know what to say on their campaigns – ‘We’re going to improve schools, improve diversity, stop inequality from happening.’ But how you get that done is the big question. Specifics [are] what people want to hear.”

Voters had an opportunity to hear specifics of the candidates’ education platforms on Oct. 22 as David Catania, Carol Schwartz and Muriel Bowser met for an Education Forum at the Thurgood Marshall Center. It was the only major forum focused specifically on education since the start of campaigning. Candidates agreed that more planning was necessary to sustain the rapid expansion of charter schools across the district as they discussed the widening achievement gap and lack of coordination between charter schools and neighborhood public schools.

As Election Day approaches, education inequality across the wards remains a large topic of conversation for the candidates at meet and greet and fundraising events. Catania held his 100th community meet and greet on Oct. 18 at the home of Dionne Brown in ward 8. Children played in the front yard – dashing back and forth in front of the “Public School Parents for David!” sign that was propped up in Brown’s flower beds as about 30 supporters gathered inside to hear Catania speak.

“If you get an education, you have job opportunities and you have incomes that flow,” Catania said. “The lynchpin of this ward’s future has got to be fixing our public schools where you can take a child in public schools in this ward and be sure that they’ve received exactly the same education as [they would in] our wealthiest ward.”

At a meet and greet the next day in Mt. Pleasant at the home of Rob and Linda Low, Bowser’s remarks also centered on her education platform. She expressed her support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and fielded questions regarding her plans to expand arts programs and after-school care. Bowser has been outspoken against redistricting plans that she says would limit access to quality schools for students who live east of Rock Creek Park or the Anacostia River.

“Our campaign is about making sure that not only are we going to have progress and success in some schools, or progress and success in some downtown areas or progress and success in some southwest areas,” Bowser said. “But progress across all eight wards in the District of Columbia.”

Schwartz did not hold a public meet and greet over that weekend, but she did arrive at the Judiciary Square polling place about 2:30 p.m. to speak to journalists and meet with supporters and canvassers. She cited her personal experience as a parent and educator as she discussed her education platform.

“I can’t imagine anything more important than educating our children. And where we fail at that we really fail at everything else,” Schwartz said. “My children went nowhere but the D.C. public schools and I’m a special education teacher. I’ve been a full-time consultant in my past at the U.S. Department of Education. I have a very good background to take care of education.”

D.C. public schools have consistently ranked as the worst in the country, an issue that many attribute to income gaps between the western wards and the eastern wards. From 2007 to 2011, Michelle Rhee, an educator and educational reform advocate, was brought in as chancellor of D.C. public schools under Mayor Adrian Fenty to enact sweeping education reform.

Specifics [are] what people want to hear.

– Cuneyt Dil, former student of a D.C. public school

Her frequently controversial reform tactics dramatically focused on standardized test scores and top-down accountability that linked teacher’s pay and tenure to their students’ test scores. She closed 23 schools, fired 36 principles and turned the school board into an advisory board with no decision-making power. Test scores improved following her reforms, but D.C.P.S. rankings remained low under Mayor Vincent Gray and his chancellor, Kaya Henderson.

At an education debate last December before his loss in the March primary, Gray was heavily criticized for his choice of chancellor and lack of progress on improving the public school system.

Voters are now expecting the next mayor to make distinct improvements to the education system from the elementary level all the way up to the University of the District of Columbia. One such voter, Sonya Robbins-Hoffmann, an educator and mother of three children that attend D.C. public schools, was at Bower’s meet and greet at the Low household. She questioned Bowser about her plans to improve middle schools across the district but is still undecided on her final vote.

“The two candidates that I’m most interested in – Catania and Bowser – both seem to have deep knowledge and profound personal instinct in education,” Robbins-Hoffmann said. “I think we’re at a point where we need swift and decisive action. I’m not sure if Catania would bring swift and decisive action that might imply an immense amount of discord, that’s my concern on his side. I’m not sure whether I trust that Bowser has the stomach for a really big fight.”

Judiciary Square
Different candidates’ posters color Judiciary Square during early voting.

Though some like Robbins-Hoffmann remain undecided, a new poll released Oct. 20 shows Bowser leading Catania by 12 points. Economic Growth D.C. commissioned a poll of 800 likely voters conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, from Thursday through Sunday. Results show Bowser with 45% of likely voters and Catania with 33%. Schwartz trails with 12% support and only 7% remain undecided. The results hold a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.

Notably, the poll asked respondents to weigh in on six “comparative images” relating to election issues. One of the images asked voters to select which candidate “will improve public schools.” Bowser and Catania statistically tied with 34% and 33%, respectively. Only 12% selected Schwartz.

Some local residents believe public schools are already on track to improve. Robin Kane, a Mt. Pleasant resident and parent of a daughter, chose to send her to a private school. She hopes that the district’s next mayor will help the schools continue to improve.

“I think certainly the schools in D.C. are on a pretty good path,” Kane said. “People are feeling like there’s more positive energy. People are coming back to the schools. The numbers show that parents and families are coming back to public schools.”