Whenever city officials discuss the progress of D.C. Public Schools, they’re bound to highlight the school system’s growing number of success stories — and to concede that many local schools are not up to par.
This mix of stronger and weaker schools gives paramount importance to the annual school lottery. Parents put in a request for their child’s admission into one of the city’s best schools, and then wait hopefully for the randomized result. Parents who don’t get a top placement often switch their children to private schools or move out of the District, making the lottery results a matter of significant financial consequence both for parents and for the city government. And for children whose families have no choice but to accept an unwanted lottery result, their path to success grows more rocky than those with better luck, financial means or both.
Accordingly, it’s entirely understandable why there’s been so much outrage over news that a number of well-connected parents circumvented the lottery process — and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s problematic initial response to it.
A recent investigation by the D.C. inspector general identified seven cases in 2015 in which then-Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson granted “discretionary placements” to parents connected to the Bowser administration, D.C. Public Schools or Ms. Henderson personally. In these cases, the parents didn’t get the result they wanted in the lottery and seemingly took advantage of their access to the chancellor to request an alternative school assignment. This could be seen not only as jumping the queue, but also as potentially displacing a student who was legitimately in line for a hotly desired open seat.
Vague policies allow such transfers when they would be “in the best interests of the student” and “promote the overall interests of the school system.” But Mayor Bowser’s defense that Ms. Henderson broke no rules — while probably accurate — comes up short. It reeks of a double standard in which politically connected parents can expect special favors that aren’t available to ordinary residents — the sort of cronyism that longtime D.C. residents recall from the old school board days.
We also don’t accept the administration’s defense of the parents who sought special placements, particularly two who were identified as Bowser appointees. Mayor Bowser has said they were within their rights to ask for an alternative school placement, and that any parents are free to do the same. But those who won exceptions in 2015 — such as Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, the head of a nonprofit that works with the school system, and a former classmate of Chancellor Henderson — were in positions that made them more likely to get their requests heard and granted.
The mayor has wisely ordered discretionary placements to be suspended while recently hired Chancellor Antwan Wilson develops a new policy, which would include a review by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability of any mayoral appointee’s request. We hope the new policy is clear about when lottery results may be disregarded — and that an inside track to the chancellor’s office is eliminated as a factor.