As a parent of a child just entering the DC Public Schools system, I’m keen to pay attention to the administration and politics that will shape not just my daughter’s education, but also that of the 118,000+ kids that attend District schools. DCPS just got a new chancellor, and while there’s been controversy around the pick, I see reason to think he’ll be successful— and to support him in those efforts.
Mayor Muriel Bowser recently appointed Antwan Wilson, a former Oakland schools superintendent, to run DC's schools. Wilson comes in with a wealth of experience in education and administration.
That’s good, because when Wilson takes office, he will have a laundry list of deep-seated, chronic problems many people feel the former chancellors failed to effectively address, not least of all is the education gap between minority students and their white counterparts. Fortunately, experience here is all over his résumé.
Wilson has experience with struggling schools and finding success with teachers unions
Wilson has been in education for over twenty years as both a teacher and an administrator. His crowning achievements, according to the Post, have been turning around struggling schools in Denver and Oakland. During his short tenure as superintendent in Oakland, starting in 2014, graduation rates went up, suspensions went down, and the school’s fiscal outlook improved.
He will also likely negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement for the Washington Teachers Union (WTU), which will determine things like teacher wages, salary increases, paid time off, etc. In DC, the agreement expired in 2012 but is still used today, and teachers hope that a new agreement will address fairer salary increases and give them the power to challenge unfair performance evaluations.
As it turns out, this is another area Wilson has experience in. During his time as superintendent in Oakland, the district negotiated its first long-term labor contracts since 2009, and teachers received a 14 percent salary increase over an 18-month period. Other labor unions received salary increases under Wilson's leadership as well.
If the new chancellor can repeat his successes in DC, turning around some of DC's worst schools and closing the education gap, he will have belatedly fulfilled some of the promises of the former chancellor, Kaya Henderson. Also, brokering a fair new bargaining agreement for the WTU would go a long way to possibly restoring the trust of teachers, who have felt under appreciated by policy makers and targeted by performance evaluations.
What will this really mean for my daughter’s education? I'm not naive enough to think that one person can reform a system that many people, including myself, would point to as being dysfunctional. But even making small steps, like these, in a better direction would go a long way towards raising the educational standards for everyone.
For me, these two issues are pretty salient. I know teachers who have worked in tough schools, and I come from a family of educators, so knowing that DCPS teachers were taken care of and that the most vulnerable students were given a fair chance would go even further in building community support and trust. It would at least erode some of my skepticism for a system that my daughter and thousands of other DC children rely on, and give me hope that policymakers are working for everyone.
There is controversy around Wilson being picked
This all looks very promising, but before the new chancellor attempts to change the system, he’ll likely need to work hard to overcome some misgivings about his appointment.
Early this month, the Washington City Paper reported that a group of teachers, a WTU representative, parents, and students feels left out of the actual selection process. The group claims that the Mayor's office never sent them a list of candidates, or their résumés, despite a statute that clearly states that the panel is to be involved in the selection process. They say they were ultimately kept in the dark, and no one outside of the mayor's office knew who was being considered for the job.
Elizabeth Davis, from the WTU, described their grievance to the City Paper this way:
[Mayor Bowser] did not meet with such a group to hear opinions and recommendations about those under consideration for the position as chancellor. Nor did Mayor Bowser give great weight to the recommendations of the Washington Teacher’s Union, as required under PERAA. In fact, she made it impossible for WTU to give any recommendations to her on the ‘individuals under consideration’ because she refused to provide WTU representatives or other members of the advisory panel the resumes of any of the candidates under consideration.
City officials, especially Bowser, maintain that they followed the letter of law and included the review panel in all relevant steps of the process, even taking into consideration a list of qualifications handed in by the panel.
This has been a chronic problem for the panel and the community at large, who've been left out of these decisions in the past and feel particularly slighted given that Bowser ran on a campaign of transparency and community involvement.
Whether or not the selection panel and the WTU have an actual case against the mayor, it's clear that Bower stepped on some toes by not including the panel in the actual selection process.
This doesn’t send the best message to the community, but I also don’t think it’s the end of the world
I get the sense that Bowser's rushed appointment of Wilson, without meaningful involvement from the community, is just business as usual. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, as both Rhee and Henderson were appointed without much community input.
As a parent and community member, this leaves me wondering what our collective role is in shaping education policy. Why establish laws and set up a panel that's ultimately not going to be given a voice in the process? Not only is this unfair to the electorate, but as we've seen, it leaves people angry and more distrustful of their elected officials.
On the other hand, we might have to admit that it's not feasible to have so many people involved in the selection process. Having our views represented somewhere in the decision making process is necessary and good, but we elect officials to govern and make decisions on our behalf. In this case, Wilson has already been appointed so we may have to just see how he does, staying involved and informed. If we don't like where he takes us, then we can always vote our elected officials out.
Greater Greater Washington contributor, Patrick Kennedy, offers a little more perspective:
As long as DC has a confirmation process in place to ensure that people can evaluate and weigh in on the mayor's candidate through testimony to the Council and its education committee, I'm satisfied that nominees will be vetted with the appropriate amount of public input.
The mayor should have the ability to appoint people they think will effectively administer the government according to their vision, because that's what they're accountable for at the polls.
Regardless of where you stand on Wilson's appointment, he will step into a lot of deep emotions and philosophical disagreements when he takes office, with one of his major tasks, besides education reform, being to bridge the gap between contentious parties. Personally, I hope he can do this, but I also think it's important for us to get passed the controversy and to focus on what he was appointed to do, make education better.