Bowser Tackles State of the Schools

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Philanthropist David Rubenstein and Mayor Muriel Bowser at the Hamilton. Photo by Peggy Sands.

“Education is part of D.C.’s great story,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser during an April 11 conversation with philanthropist David Rubenstein, a discussion she requested they undertake about the state of the District’s public schools.

“We have increased the District budget in education every year since I’ve been mayor,” Bowser said at the gathering of D.C. education leaders and major donors. The event, including a sumptuous early morning breakfast at the Hamilton downtown, was sponsored by the DC Public Education Fund.

But there was little mention of the high school absenteeism scandal, in which almost one in three graduating students in 2017 did not meet attendance requirements. And the selection of new hires to fill the now vacant positions of DC Schools chancellor and deputy mayor for education seemed less than urgent.

“Beginning a search for a new chancellor will be among my top priorities once the election primaries in June are over,” Bowser announced. The mayor is running virtually unopposed for reelection.

Her vision for education? “Good schools in every neighborhood so that everyone in the District can share in its growing prosperity.” A good education system also could be one of the top factors in convincing Amazon to establish its second headquarters in the District, the mayor added.

D.C.’s public school population has grown to 50,000, with the highest paid teachers in the area if not the nation. But the mayor admitted to some problems.

“We’re doing better than five years ago, but there’s still much work to do,” she said. “We have to focus more on secondary schools. We want to be sure our high school students are prepared to go to college and are prepared to get good paying jobs, because in this city, everyone needs to earn a good wage.”

New computer initiatives could be the answer, Bowser suggested. “New school buildings, libraries and computer access systems will give more access to computers to all students at home and where they study,” she said. “New engagement initiatives will help parents and teachers better track homework and absences of students at all times.”

Bowser said the District’s unicameral government system, in which the mayor controls the schools, is the best for fixing any school problems. The Council acts as overseer and the DC State Board of Education, headed by the chancellor and the deputy mayor for education, are the implementers. ‘The people of D.C. want the accountability they get from this single line of authority,” she said.

“What is better,” Rubenstein asked. “Public schools or charter?”

“They are all public schools,” Bowsers said somewhat sharply. “Some charters are specialized, focusing on science, technology, the arts or a particularly neighborhood. But they all are treated equally as public schools.”

The free-flowing question-and-answer session between Rubinstein and Bowser included some banter about parking tickets. Rubenstein, with tongue in cheek, complimented the efficiency of the D.C. parking enforcement system. “My car was ticketed just after I had been honored and awarded the keys to the city,” he complained good-naturedly.

“The best way not to have to pay parking tickets is to park legally,” the mayor told the founder of billion-dollar private equity firm the Carlyle Group, sounding a bit like a schoolmarm.

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