jonetta rose barras: Promising the stars and delivering peanuts

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Politicians have an awful habit during election season of promising the stars, proffering to voters that they will cure every ill affecting every resident while staying within budget. After the dust has cleared, however, those stars are reconstructed peanuts, and elected officials have developed a massive case of amnesia.

District officials are not exempt from that phenomenon. In 2014, for example, then-Ward 4 DC Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser famously pledged “Alice Deal for All,” citing a notable Ward 3 school as the template she would use to “transform” the District’s middle schools.  

Photo by Bruce McNeil

Bowser also promised during that campaign to accelerate the pace of school reform with a renewed focus on “accountability and results.” She vowed to “ensure strong, innovative, and mission-driven leadership at DCPS.” And interestingly, Bowser said that as mayor she would “ensure that our education leaders are developing real, transparent, well-communicated metrics that will enable families to make the best decisions possible for their children. These same metrics will enable our leaders to make the best decisions about how to improve a school’s performance.”

Raise your hand if you believe Bowser has delivered on those promises. Yes, that’s the mayor’s hand you see.

“My administration has made historic investments in public education, and we have seen our schools and students make real progress,” Bowser told me through her spokesperson LaToya Foster. The mayor also said that during the 2016-17 school year there were “record gains” on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, which is based on Common Core standards adopted by the six states and DC that are part of the consortium. Bowser noted that scores for that year increased “across almost all subjects, grades and student groups, including our low-income students and students of color.”  

That kind of rainbows-and-lollipops assessment has proved a disservice to education reform and an insult to the intelligence of DC residents. The truth inside Bowser’s analysis is this: More than 70 percent of students who took the PARCC in the 2016-17 school year did not meet expectations set for their grade levels. They were either not proficient in English language arts or math, or both, according to government reports.

Bowser also raved that she had opened new schools “to meet the challenges faced by our students,” particularly those of color. She bragged that her team has “expanded offerings for our students at all levels to prepare them for college and career”; approved a teacher contract, which includes a salary increase; expanded “Kids Ride Free” to include Metrorail; and increased the overall DCPS student population. “I know the best is yet to come for DC Public Schools,” she added. Bowser has been no less guilty than education advocates of parsing the successes and needs of DCPS.

She has said that “we need to evaluate our educational outcome goals as a system of public schools.” After nearly four years, however, she has yet to provide that objective review.  

That may not change. Bowser sailed through this year’s Democratic Party primary. The November general election does not portend any real opposition, even if, as some have suggested, Ward 7 DC Council member Vincent Gray decides to jump into the race as an independent — a rematch of his 2014 Democratic primary matchup against Bowser, with the former mayor looking to redeem his name and his legacy.

Any lack of competition, though, should not stop the public and the press from scrutinizing Bowser’s tenure and her achievements (or lack thereof) in public education. Bowser has not delivered a system of high-quality public education for all children, regardless of where they live. She has not established clear, transparent metrics of evaluation or accountability. And she is nowhere near fulfilling that grandiose pledge of an “Alice Deal for All.”

What impact will a new chancellor have on Bowser’s ability to make good on a second round of education promises? It depends on what she does to bolster the selection process.

Since 2007, when education reform began, the revolving door of incompetent and marginally competent so-called education leaders has moved with mind-boggling speed. There have been five permanent or acting DC state superintendents of education, four acting or permanent deputy mayors for education, and four acting or permanent chancellors. Amanda Alexander is the fifth person to hold the title of chancellor, although her grip also may be temporary.

“We go into this process with a clear understanding of the progress we’ve made, the challenges we still face, and with a strong sense of urgency to do better for our students and families,” Bowser said when announcing the start of the search process.

What is unquestionably clear is that, thus far, Bowser has provided no public guidance on what she wants in the next leader of DCPS — the only conglomerate mandated by DC law to educate any child who shows up at the door of her neighborhood school. Bowser has said the chancellor search will be supported by her Office of Talent and Appointments. What expertise, beyond reading resumes and assessing political affiliations and potential political affronts or damage, does that office possess to help with identifying this critical local leader?

Perhaps the reason Bowser has yet to step up and take ownership of the chancellor search — and to declare clearly the gravitas she expects in a chancellor — is the same reason she has off-loaded much of the process to others: She’s worried about possible political blowback.

Someone should tell her that thing can work two ways.

jonetta rose barras is a DC-based author and freelance writer. She can be reached at

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