When the DC Board of Education ran the city’s school system, the contests sometimes offered a prelude to future elections, with the positions offering a springboard to the DC Council or the mayor’s office for politicians such as Marion Barry, Hilda Mason, Carol Schwartz, Linda Cropp and Tommy Wells.
The role of the board — as well as its name — changed more than a decade ago with mayoral control of the DC Public Schools system, and the DC State Board of Education positions now focus on policy rather than operational issues. The seats may not offer the same high-profile platform that they once did, but candidates for the four seats on the Nov. 6 ballot say board members still have a critical role to play in policy and can use their positions to engage the community, connect with decision-makers, and shape the conversation around education-related topics.
Residents in wards 1, 3, 5 and 6 will get to choose their respective representatives to the State Board of Education, with contested races for all four seats on the ballot. Only two incumbents are seeking another term — Ward 3’s Ruth Wattenberg, who faces challenger Dora Currea, and Ward 6’s Joe Weedon, who faces Jessica Sutter. Each of the two open seats features a three-way race: Jason Andrean, Emily Gasoi and Callie Kozlak are running in Ward 1, and Adrian Jordan, William “Bill” Lewis and Zachary Parker are vying for the Ward 5 post.
A special election Dec. 4 will fill the vacancy in the Ward 4 seat left by the July 31 resignation of Lannette Woodruff. Four of the 10 candidates who picked up nominating petitions submitted them by the Sept. 5 deadline: Rhonda Henderson, Elani Lawrence, Frazier L. O’Leary Jr. and Ryan Tauriainen.
When the DC Council voted in 2007 to put the mayor’s office in charge of schools, the elected board’s formal role became advising the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), the District’s state education agency. Board members have the power to vote and approve — and therefore reject — policies that relate to graduation standards, but their actions must come in response to OSSE’s proposals.
Education advocates say voters shouldn’t overlook the board’s importance. Cathy Reilly, executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, noted that a seat on the board can provide a “bully pulpit,” and the issues that members have the power to vote on are important.
She cited, for instance, a very divided vote that ultimately approved the STAR rating system, which will be used to rank every school in the city — an issue that has sparked heated debate.
“It’s important that we really feel these people are representing our youth,” said Reilly.
Looking ahead, Reilly has her eye on the state report cards, chancellor search, and potential moves toward a more empowered board as some of the many issues to consider during this election.
The DC Line spoke to the candidates up for election on Nov. 6 about their backgrounds, platforms, and goals should they be elected to the board.
In 2007, Jason Andrean and his family decided that his daughter and her mother would move away from Columbia Heights — the neighborhood in which Andrean still lives — and out of DC so that his daughter could attend public school elsewhere.
“I believe no child’s family should have to make the decision we made, which is to leave their neighborhood in search of a quality school,” he said. “As young parents, the process of getting our daughter into a quality school seemed daunting.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Andrean moved to DC to attend Georgetown University, and has remained in the city ever since. He has worked in community and retail banking, which he believes positions him well to analyze data and numbers and make sense of their larger implications. While on the board of the DC Trust (long known as the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.), Andrean was asked to review the group’s finances, ultimately revealing years of misuse of public funds and contributing to the dismantling of the organization.
Andrean said he would use his position as a way of connecting and communicating the educational needs of his ward to council members, the mayor’s office and other institutions, while also promoting a public education system that is transparent, open and inclusive. He said he recognizes that many issues and barriers to quality education are part of a larger conversation on equity in which he plans to engage.
“Something that’s clear to me is that education is the great equalizer,” said Andrean.
Emily Gasoi has testified at OSSE’s public forums and in front of the DC Council’s Education Committee, but she felt her testimonies were ignored. After the State Board of Education voted to approve the state superintendent’s ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plans, in contradiction to what she felt many parents had said, she decided to run.
“I could be on the board, and I could have that place to be able to vote according to what I hear the public expressing,” she said.
Gasoi has years of experience in education, beginning as a teacher in Boston. She moved to DC to pursue her doctorate and served as a course instructor and mentor at the Center for Inspired Teaching, working with students and teachers across DCPS and charter schools. She also co-founded a consulting practice, Artful Education, and co-wrote the book These Schools Were Built for You and Me.
Gasoi said she hopes that all families will have good in-boundary options so they do not feel the need to rely on the lottery — the system set up by the city for applications to charter, selective and out-of-boundary schools — as their only hope of finding a quality education. She believes that this will require numerous changes, including a “culture shift” away from prioritizing data, which she believes creates perverse incentives for teachers and administrators. Gasoi said she intends to work alongside communities, activists, students and teachers to achieve this.
“There should be people [on the board] who understand how policy plays out on the ground,” said Gasoi.
After spending years teaching pre-K and first grade in DC schools, Callie Kozlak moved to the policy side of education. She worked at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration and now holds a position at Unidos U.S., advocating for the Latino community.
Her work in civil rights advocacy informs her decision to run, as she hopes to create a system that will provide all children — including the most vulnerable — with a good education. She said she believes that “bringing more community voices into the process is the key for creating a system that is going to deliver on equity and is going to be effective.”
Kozlak said board members need to ensure stakeholders are involved by doing more to reach out to them and invite feedback on policy. In particular, she added, teachers with on-the-ground knowledge ought to be more actively included in decision-making processes, which she has seen effectively implemented in other jurisdictions.
Kozlak also hopes to encourage policies that support bilingual education as well as after-school and summer programs — such as those she has observed through her involvement with Young Playwrights’ Theater, where students are able to express their emotions, interact with adults, and learn at the same time.
“Having been a teacher in the DC classrooms and having seen and worked with our DC community firsthand, I bring that perspective,” said Kozlak. “I think I could substantively add to the responsibilities of the board and make a strong commitment to ensure community input to the board’s activities.”
“My entire family is teachers,” said Dora Currea, who decided to become a Spanish instructor after more than 20 years working in international development.
Currea, a native of Colombia, moved to the United States at age 6. She credits her education as having had a major impact on her ability to succeed, and she said she hopes to create a system where every student has a similar opportunity.
The role of a board member is twofold, according to Currea: to partner with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and to connect the parents in Ward 3 to the State Board of Education. She is frustrated by the tendency to view traditional and charter schools differently, saying they’re “half and half,” and that they need to be included equally in discussions of the city’s educational vision.
“There may be that there is an overall vision, but the institutionality doesn’t allow the everyday citizen to see it,” Currea said. She intends to improve communication of this vision.
Currea also said she wants to improve and increase dual language programs. Aware of worries in Ward 3 about overcrowded conditions that stem from the desire of families in other wards to send their children to high-performing schools in upper Northwest, she also hopes to improve educational offerings throughout the city as a way to reduce inequity while also easing enrollment pressures.
“I’m committed to equity issues, and I am committed to ensuring that every student has an opportunity,” she said.
One-term incumbent Ruth Wattenberg took part in the deliberations this summer when the board voted to reject OSSE’s proposed credit-recovery regulations, in what she sees as a demonstration of the board’s ability to do more than advise.
She said she wishes the board had rejected OSSE’s one- to five-star school rating system as well. Wattenberg said she plans to work to fix the rating system, which she believes could distort community and family views of the schools.
Wattenberg is also committed to reducing the school system’s emphasis on reading and math test scores. “It’s very unhealthy,” she said. “Kids need a broader curriculum, and the constant focus on these two numbers is damaging the quality of education kids get, provides a distorted view of the schools, and [is] driving parents and school people crazy.”
First elected as the Ward 3 representative in November 2014, Wattenberg has also acquired her education experience as a policy consultant, as a board member of the Core Knowledge Association and as a parent of students at Janney Elementary, Deal Middle and Wilson High.
“I know education, I know education policy, and I know our local DC schools,” said Wattenberg.
She said she is concerned about overcrowding in Ward 3 schools and a history of inadequate funding for schools such as Wilson High.
Building on her platform from years past, Wattenburg also said she intends to continue to push for independent, credible data on DC schools in order to inform board members, policymakers and other city officials on what is working and what is not.
As a graduate of Wilson High School, Adrian Jordan began paying attention to public education long before considering a run for a board seat. “Public education does work,” he said of his experience in DC.
When Jordan worked as a policy analyst under Ward 5 DC Council member Kenyan McDuffie from 2012 to 2015, he toured schools all over the city and saw the inequities. He also had to decide where to send his own son, and he describes the decision to send his son to Two Rivers Public Charter School as challenging for someone who believes in the importance of the traditional public school system.
Jordan said he would push for budget transparency in DC public schools, as well as budget autonomy to give teachers and principals more decision-making power. He also recommends insulating OSSE from politics by establishing a five-year term for the state superintendent, who is appointed by the mayor with confirmation by the DC Council.
Jordan said board members have a “bully pulpit” and the opportunity to provide a conduit between the community and legislators. Board members can also galvanize public support around education issues, he said, adding that he hopes to facilitate greater community involvement — and investment — in Ward 5 schools.
“We need to find a way where communities can get involved in their local schools,” said Jordan, citing his own frustration with an inability to get grant funding in the hands of Bunker Hill Elementary.
A native Washingtonian, Bill Lewis has seen the education system through thick and thin. Looking back, he said, he never could have anticipated the state of DC education today, which he said is failing to prepare students to be “capable citizens.”
He served for 23 years in the Navy and then worked with the U.S. Postal Service. When he left, at age 50, he went back to school and became certified to teach.
Lewis views the high rate of incarceration as a failing of the education system. He said that’s a major reason for his continued involvement with students following his retirement in 2012. He works as a tutor at Club Z and mentors students.
Lewis said his educational background as a graduate of DCPS and the University of the District of Columbia gives him more in common with most DC students than he would have had as an alum of schools considered more prestigious. “I know what the average student needs,” he said.
Lewis called for DC to adopt a “whole child” approach rather than an overly narrow view of academic achievement, adding that he believes all students are capable of success once a child’s learning skills and innate abilities have been identified. He also supports statutory changes to give the board more than just advisory power.
“I’m the oldest one out there,” said Lewis. “I’ve got whatever it takes because I’ve been there.”
Zachary Parker is a former award-winning seventh-grade math teacher who believes that policy set by top DC education officials often doesn’t reflect the needs of students, teachers and others who work in DC classrooms.
In his current position as senior director of school support at the Achievement Network, Parker continues to see what’s happening on the ground as he coaches principals and administrators at public and charter schools around the country — including some in DC — on curriculum, learning standards and more. He has seen great work being done in schools, but it generally doesn’t reflect “what’s coming down the pipeline in policy.”
Noting that Ward 5 has fewer than 20 percent of students proficient in English and math, Parker said he believes that one solution is to involve students in the decision-making process to ensure that policies better reflect and respond to the day-to-day realities in the schools and fulfill the needs of at-risk students. Another priority is better training for teachers on content and racial bias.
He plans to work with policymakers and speak out on education issues, but said he views fostering community involvement and empowerment as one of board members’ most important roles. He said that’s why he decided on “Invest in Five” as his campaign slogan.
“The ultimate goal is to create a movement across Ward 5 where parents, educators, community members [and] business members come together to improve Ward 5 schools,” Parker said.
Jessica Sutter has worked as a teacher, as a grant program officer at OSSE, and as senior adviser to the deputy mayor for education, allowing her to see policy creation, enforcement and implementation. As a State Board of Education member, she could use her multi-pronged experience to inform the board’s decisions, she said.
Sutter said she is concerned about the decisions parents must make when navigating the District’s education system. She thinks the process is overwhelming and that the timeline for entering the lottery penalizes families new to the District. She hopes to improve both situations. She also stressed the need for greater investment in neighborhood middle and high schools to ensure that every choice will lead to a great education.
Noting that that nearly 70 percent of students in Ward 6 do not attend their neighborhood schools, she said, “Families in our ward are making active choices, and I don’t know if they feel represented by their current representative.”
She said that she was glad to see board members reject OSSE’s emergency credit-recovery regulations and would seek to forge a continued push for greater authority — not only advising but actually suggesting policy, which she views as a possibility through coalition-building.
“We have to be thinking about what the future of the city wants, as well as the folks who have lived here a long time and believe that [having] excellent schools and an excellent education system matters for the fabric of our community,” she said of the need to balance the views of current stakeholders and the community at large with those of people who will be deciding where to send their children to school in the future.
When Joe Weedon heard that Maury Elementary School in the Capitol Hill neighborhood was going to be closed, he rallied others to support the school. That was in 2004. Now Maury is undergoing a $50 million expansion, but Weedon has remained involved in education in the District.
Weedon — who was elected to the board in 2014 — has two children who are attending Eliot-Hine Middle School. He is the only current board member whose children attend their neighborhood school, which he says gives him a unique perspective on the impact of policies on the schools and school system.
He said his dedication to neighborhood schools stems from seeing the District fall short on ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education. Weedon characterizes Ward 6 schools as some of the most integrated in the city, but he also sees continued gaps in equity that he hopes to address. Weedon plans to continue to fight for a school system in which every student has access to a high-quality education, with services and resources distributed equitably across the District.
Weedon said his time on the board has offered valuable lessons based on the ways he and his colleagues have been able to influence policy, even without direct oversight.
“We set graduation policies, we set residency standards, community engagement standards, and more importantly — and this is the role I’ve taken to heart — we’re elected to be advocates for our community,” he said.
In a second term, Weedon said, he would continue to work on engaging families and communities, collaborating across sectors, and ensuring that public education systems are transparent — all key aspects of his platform.
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Lannette Woodruff, the former Ward 4 representative on the State Board of Education, and Callie Kozlak, candidate for the Ward 1 seat.