Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Several weeks ago, we asked the major candidates for the April 26th at-large DC Council special election to answer a set of eight questions about a councilmember’s role in specific education policy issues.

We received answers from four of the candidates: Alan Page, Vincent Orange, Bryan Weaver, and Sekou Biddle.  We reviewed the responses to see how well the candidates understood and articulated key education issues, and if their ideas went beyond the slogans and platitudes voters are used to hearing.

Bryan Weaver had some of the most specific and realistic ideas for improving education, especially for disadvantaged students and on funding disparities between DCPS schools and charters. Alan Page also impressed, with the best response about teacher evaluations. Vincent Orange demonstrated some chops in responses to several questions.

The biggest surprise was that the candidate with the longest resume in the education field — Sekou Biddle — had the least specific responses to our education survey.  Maybe he’s been more specific on the campaign trail.

There is no easy way to summarize the results or say who “won,” and my analysis is very subjective, so feel free to read the verbatim responses from verbatim responses and form your own judgment.

Educational opportunity for disadvantaged students

Interestingly, the one question that drew new policy ideas yielded the same policy idea from three of the candidates. When we asked about how we can create more equal educational opportunity for the city’s most disadvantaged students, Weaver, Page, and Orange all advocated some form of additional pay for teaching in the poorest neighborhoods.

Weaver’s very specific proposal called for up to a $16,000 bonus for a voluntary move and a three-year commitment to teach in the city’s lowest-performing schools. Page offered many more specific ideas, but some of them were hard to follow, like paying teachers (doubling the incentives?) if they are effective (based on student input) and teach in a low-performing school. Others included pursuing a balanced plan of facilities modernization rather than favoring selected sites.

Biddle suggested that wide distribution of school performance data was a way to fuel the city’s already active system of public school choice to equalize opportunity — the only candidate to take this angle.

But ideas like these were typically sandwiched between platitudes that gave little clue as to the policies we might see him advocate for as a member of the Council.  (In fairness, he has already started introducing legislation, such as a bill to make transportation free for low-income families). This may be the strategy of a frontrunner, but it left us to focus on other candidates who provided meatier responses.

Teacher evaluations

Statehood Green candidate Alan Page gave the best response to a question about the the DCPS system of teacher evaluation known as IMPACT. For starters, he accurately described how it currently works, expressing support for it as a good start, suggesting that it could be improved to capture critical thinking, and saying he would hold stakeholder hearings. This would probably fall under micro-management according to Biddle’s response, but might help citizens get a better understanding of this fundamental tool for making education policy in the District.

Most candidates did not get specific enough to demonstrate a full understanding of this or other key education policies like management of federal grants like Race to the Top and the lesser known State Longitudinal Education Data system (SLED).

Orange and Bryan Weaver recognized the failure of DC to execute on its SLED grant but nobody offered solutions. Weaver came the closest, asking for transparency in education performance data as well as the issue of surplus properties, advocating for a public database of the city inventory with agency contact information and other data.

Role of the State Board of Education

Vincent Orange had good answers about the role of the State Board of Education (SBOE) and about the disposition of public buildings that once housed under-enrolled DCPS schools. He acknowledged the reduced role of the SBOE, but recognized its value as an elected board that could bring constituent concerns on education to the policy arena.  (Though this might be more accurate if so many of its members didn’t consider the Board as merely a stepping stone to the Council.)

On buildings, he echoed a concern that other candidates raised for community input and that some raised for revenue generation, but noted that if we don’t let charter schools occupy the schools, as they are promised by law, then (non-profit) charter schools will take some other property off the tax rolls.

Charters versus DCPS

We asked a somewhat leading question about whether candidates thought that charter and DCPS schools received fair budget allocations. Charter advocates have long complained that they are not treated fairly relative to the traditional district.

Orange wins bravery points for pushing back on this idea and suggesting that charters in DC are better off relative to their traditional school peers than in other states. He also called for weighted school formula funding and extra funding for magnet programs but did not explain why.

Biddle noted astutely that timeliness of the funds is a critical issue for charter schools. But Weaver really nailed the issue, focusing on facilities allocations and the fact that DC government has exposed itself to a lawsuit over this issue by not taking the issue of facilities funding equity seriously enough.

Vouchers

As readers will remember, Stephen is no fan of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, aka DC vouchers, so he naturally gave points to Weaver and Page for opposing it, while Biddle and Orange said they’re for it. Voters who support the program might view this one differently.

Weaver just thinks the dollar amounts are too low to get poor kids into truly elite schools, and added that the voucher program shouldn’t subsidize schools to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Biddle defended the program but also referenced a need for funded organizations to comply with the DC Human Rights Act.  Orange hinted at the real reason we might want to support the program: the bribe that Congress offered, by including in the program equal funding bonuses for DCPS and DC charters if the program was enacted.

Chancellor selection

We asked some questions that flopped. One was about the selection of a permanent DCPS chancellor.  The candidates who responded promptly to our questionnaire (Page and Orange) gave earnest answers and then Mayor Gray announced his selection, prompting the later-responding candidates to say they support Kaya Henderson. Not much to be learned there.

We need more city leaders who are knowledgeable about education and this survey shows is that the choice is not obvious. However, taken together, the candidates’ responses can add a new layer to voters’ understanding of where the candidates stand, how knowledgeable they are, and what they might do in the education arena if elected.

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Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica.

Laura Gutmann has over a decade of experience working with schools in DC, New York City, and North Carolina as a teacher, nonprofit executive, consultant, and researcher.  She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Education.