Photo by Charlie_2001 on Flickr.

Front-running mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has released a more fleshed-out education platform, but it’s still short on specifics. And it seems to put a lot of faith in a hoped-for collaboration with the current DC Public Schools Chancellor.

Bowser has abandoned her flimsy “Deal for All” education platform, which promised to replicate Ward 3’s Alice Deal Middle School in all eight wards, replacing it with a plan that would achieve “World-

Class Schools for All” instead. But despite the shift in language and the addition of more detail, it’s not much clearer how she plans to accomplish that goal.

One of her promises, for example, is to “completely transform” middle schools by 2020. The plan includes “the identification of those schools that need change the fastest, the renovation and/or construction of new buildings, and the evaluation and re-imagination of the curricular and extra-curricular offerings” for all middle-grade DCPS students.

It’s clear that most DCPS middle schools need a lot of help, and Bowser has made their improvement a key campaign issue from the beginning. But aside from the part about renovating or constructing buildings, this aspect of her platform is pretty vague.

How do we decide which schools “need change the fastest”? Will expanding the menu of offerings be enough to bring about fundamental change? And will there be enough middle-grade students at K-8th-grade education campuses to support those expanded curricular and extra-curricular offerings?

Vagueness and inconsistencies

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask a mayoral candidate to get too detailed in her plans. But to evaluate Bowser’s vision, we need to hear more than that she “will accelerate the pace of school reform by discontinuing ineffective programs and policies and replicating those that have demonstrated strong outcomes.”

When Bowser does get specific, she’s sometimes oddly specific. For example, she singles out a program called SchoolStat, which she defines as “a data-driven performance-management system currently used by DCPS.” She says she’ll expand the use of the program to identify which education policies are working and which aren’t.

I’d never heard of SchoolStat before, and a Google search turned up only a few references to its use in DCPS, all of them at least three years old. One calls it an “accountability tool” that divides employees into teams that meet periodically with the chancellor about how various initiatives are working. Maybe SchoolStat has potential, but it’s an odd thing to single out for attention.

Bowser also promises to target schools “that are on the brink of being highly regarded by parents.” She calls this the Good to Great Initiative, but the only explanation of how she’ll get schools to “great” is to “focus on these schools in a targeted way.” Once these schools have made it to great—however that is defined—the District can begin to “focus its energy and attention on those schools most in need of support.”

Aside from the quibble that it’s hard to focus on things in anything but a targeted way, this part of Bowser’s platform seems to conflict with another one that calls for a “specific focus on the 25 lowest-performing schools,” apparently simultaneously. Again, she gives no details about what that would mean, other than providing those schools with “additional resources.”

Another apparent contradiction in the platform is its final item: “Evaluate Model of School Governance.” Bowser says it’s “time to assess how” mayoral control of DCPS has worked and see “if changes can or should be made” to accelerate the pace of reform.

But the platform then goes on to say that “As Mayor, Muriel is committed to mayoral control of public schools.”  So why evaluate whether that model should be changed?

Wooing Kaya Henderson

Generally, Bowser’s platform covers many unobjectionable topics without getting into depth on any of them. But one theme that comes up a lot, in addition to “ensuring a high-quality education for every child in DC,” is working collaboratively with the DCPS chancellor. Although she doesn’t always mention her by name, it’s clear Bowser is hoping that the chancellor in question will be the current one, Kaya Henderson.

Bowser says in her platform, as she has before, that she wants Henderson to stay, arguing that “continuity in leadership at DCPS is the best way to ensure the District’s reform efforts move forward interrupted.” At several points, Bowser seems to be wooing Henderson.

She mentions “working with the Chancellor” to extend the school day, something Henderson has made clear she would like to do at more schools. And while Bowser doesn’t quite take sides in the debate about joint planning between DCPS and the charter sector, she hints that she’d like it to go beyond the strictly voluntary collaboration that charter advocates favor and impose some limits on charter school growth and location, as Henderson has urged.

Bowser also wants both sectors to work together “around efforts to … provide a neighborhood preference.” Charter advocates have generally resisted the idea that they should give neighborhood students priority in admissions, and Henderson has supported it, at least in some circumstances.

But there’s one issue important to Henderson that Bowser, like her rival David Catania, doesn’t mention in her education platform: what to do about the controversial new school boundary plan recently adopted by outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray. Henderson supports the plan, and Bowser and Catania have both previously said they oppose it.

It’s possible that Bowser is having second thoughts about her opposition, especially in light of a new poll showing a majority of DC residents in favor of the plan. At the recent mayoral debate, she suggested the plan might only need some “tweaks,” and a new version could be ready within a year. But a public statement withdrawing her opposition at this point would look too much like waffling.

To some extent, Bowser is telling people that a vote for her is a vote for Henderson, as Jay Mathews has argued in the Washington Post. And at this point, continuity of leadership at DCPS would be our best bet for progress.

There’s only one problem: while Henderson has said generally she would like to stay in her post until 2017, she hasn’t committed to staying if Bowser wins. There’s certainly a better chance she would stay under Bowser than under Catania, who has had a contentious relationship with the Chancellor. But at this point there are no guarantees.

While Catania doesn’t have all the answers on education, he has a deeper grasp of the issues and a much more substantial record on education legislation. If Henderson plans to depart under the next mayor, Catania looks like the better choice.

The decision for voters who favor continuity in education reform would be easier if Henderson made her intentions clear. Right now, a vote for Bowser is not so much a vote for Henderson as a vote for a pig in a poke.