We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the first of two posts on what the candidates for mayor said about education. See all of the interviews here.

Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

How can we speed the pace of improvement in struggling DCPS schools? Some mayoral candidates say it just takes time, and Andy Shallal says we need to focus more on the effects of poverty. But Tommy Wells wants to bring in successful charter organizations to turn schools around.

"I think sometimes it takes DCPS too long to turn an elementary school around,” Wells said, mentioning a period of 3 to 4 years in the case of one school, Tyler. “And we know that there are national-model charter schools across the country that can come in and turn a school around within a year to two years.”

Charter authority for Henderson

Wells said that if elected he would give DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson the authority to charter schools herself. (Right now the only body in DC with the authority to issue charters is the Public Charter School Board.) He would then recruit charter networks who have a proven track record of success and bring them in to run failing DCPS schools.

Neighborhood children would still be able to attend those schools as a matter of right. And, he said, “those schools may become traditional DCPS schools again. But we can’t wait, we can’t close more schools and consign more neighborhoods to not being able to have great schools.”

The current administration, Wells said, has been “coasting forward on the work done by the previous administration.”  He promised that if elected he would court successful charter organizations with the same aggressiveness that he said Mayor Vincent Gray employs in luring businesses such as Microsoft to the District.

Andy Shallal, in contrast, bristled at the suggestion that the charter sector should be encouraged to expand its role in DC. “That really denigrates educators,” he said. “It denigrates people that know how to do this stuff.”

More resources to fight social ills

The problem, he said, is that “we’re asking schools to solve social ills. We’re asking teachers to be social workers, mental health specialists, nutritionists, nurses. And that doesn’t make sense. And so for us to say, gee, we have no idea how this works, show us … No, we know how this works. You put in enough resources, enough wrap-around services, you fire bad people and you hire good people. That’s how it works.”

Shallal also said that while it’s fine to emulate some techniques used by high-performing charters, “you have to understand that charters are self-selecting at some point,” because parents who take the initiative to apply may be more engaged than those who don’t. In addition, he said, “Charter schools can actually ask a child to leave if they don’t match the criteria or the requirements of that charter school. And public schools have to accept them.”

Shallal said that what’s needed is a commitment to ensure that public schools succeed. “We have basically gone on a tear, closing down schools,” he said. “We say schools fail, and the reality is schools don’t fail. We fail them. We fail our children.”

The three other major candidates essentially said that high-performing charters should be allowed to expand, but they didn’t share Wells’ enthusiasm for using them to speed the pace of change within DCPS.

In contrast to Wells, Bowser presented the mayor’s role in bringing in charters as subordinate to that of the Public Charter School Board, which she said “makes a lot more decisions about which charters come in than the mayor does.” Her concern, she said, is to make sure that charters locate where the need is greatest and to ensure that in at least some communities charters give a preference in admissions to neighborhood kids.

Both Gray and Jack Evans said they were supportive of high-performing charter schools, but both were quick to add that DCPS schools need support as well. Like Wells, Evans said that what was needed was a mayor who could “find a way to meld these two systems together.”

Asked how the pace of progress could be increased, both Gray and Evans cautioned that change would take time, using almost identical language. “If there were a silver bullet, we would have found it,” Evans said.

"I don’t think there is a magic solution or a magic bullet or a quick fix,” Gray said.

A possible model

Gray did mention with approval a DCPS school that has begun to turn around under an arrangement similar to what Wells is suggesting: Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, which for the past 3 years has been managed by a charter organization, Scholar Academies. According to the school’s website, since then math scores have increased by 320% and reading scores by 100%. Those familiar with the school before the takeover say it’s now a much calmer, happier place. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of DC Scholars, a charter school that is also managed by Scholar Academies.)

But Gray brought up Stanton not as the wave of the future but as an example of the “multiplicity” of approaches necessary to education reform. “It’s yet another innovative approach that is starting to produce substantially increased outcomes for our children,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t know that we can predict exactly how long it will take.”

For those impatient with the pace of reform, those words aren’t particularly reassuring. Wells’ idea of bringing in charter organizations with proven track records to turn around struggling schools could give the system the jumpstart it needs. Wells mentioned that it can take DCPS 3 or 4 years to turn around a school, but there are quite a few DCPS schools that show no sign of turning around at all.

Those concerned, like Shallal, that charters are selective or that admission is unpredictable should consider that a charter-operated DCPS school would most likely be required to admit all comers, just like a regular DCPS school. That’s certainly the case at Stanton. And while Shallal has a good point about the need to address the effects of poverty on students, there’s no reason that can’t be done at a charter-operated school as well as at a traditional DCPS one.

Can charters do the job?

It’s harder to turn a failing school around than to start a school from scratch, and not all charter operators will be willing or able to take on the job. There have been a couple of failed experiments with charter partnerships at the high school level, most notably at Dunbar.

But high schools are particularly tough places to re-invent, and it’s important to select a charter operator with experience in turnarounds. The charter organization that came into Dunbar had previously operated a charter traditional public high school in New York that it had started from scratch—and that was application-only.

The experiment at Stanton seems to be working, without the advantages of self-selection or “cherry-picking” that critics say charters enjoy. We may not know exactly why charter organizations can sometimes succeed where DCPS hasn’t been able to, but maybe we should give them more opportunities to try.

To watch the interviews in their entirety, click on the videos below: