If the December 9th WTU-sponsored town hall event is a sign of things to come, then the 2014 D.C. mayoral race will be a “game changer” in the education reform landscape within the nation’s capital. Although education reform in D.C. is often a one-sided debate, one candidate is separating himself from the pack by challenging the core beliefs of the current reform system. Since most candidates toe the education reform party line, Andy Shallal has the potential to drastically alter the current mayoral race. While Andy Shallal has yet to become a political household name, his proposals can literally change the face of education reform in D.C.
During the town hall event, seven D.C. mayoral candidates took center stage to discuss their views on the District’s public education policies. Although the audience, at times, was boisterous, the sentiment in the auditorium was clearly pro public education. The mayoral candidates in attendance included Mayor Vincent Gray, restaurateur Andy Shallal, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Councilmember Vincent Orange, Councilmember Jack Evans, former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis, and former D.C. contractor Christian Carter. In my opinion, here’s a brief breakdown of the candidates’ performances:
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Incumbent):
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray holds several advantages over the other candidates in the current mayoral race. He’ll undoubtedly use recent test scores, albeit DC CAS or NAEP, as proof positive for “staying the course” in D.C. Although Mayor Gray holds obvious advantages, he must address several unpopular policies, such as school closures, the privatization of public education, and the accelerated growth of charter schools within the District. Perhaps these are a few reasons why Mayor Gray seemed annoyed with the audience’s sentiments. In my opinion, Mayor Gray appeared irritated during the event; nevertheless, he does have several advantages, such as name recognition, access to media outlets, and student performance data. These advantages may offer him enough political support to win reelection.
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans holds a financial advantage over the other candidates, yet his performance was awkward and “out of tune.” In my opinion, the councilmember appeared visibly uncomfortable, both waiting for AND answering each question. Moreover, councilmember Evans was, by far, the loudest speaker of the night. At times, it felt as if he was shouting “at” the audience and not talking “to” the audience. Unfortunately, the councilmember provided one of the most awkward responses of the night, regarding his position on DCPS IMPACT, which is the current teacher evaluation system. After a long-winded, unpopular response, he ended by stating that he will, “evaluate the evaluation.” Upon reclaiming the microphone, WTU President Liz Davis repeated the slogan, “… evaluate the evaluation,” to which the audience responded with laughter. Although councilmember Jack Evans holds a financial advantage, he failed to convince the pro public school crowd that he would champion public education.
D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells
D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells’ performance was solid, especially on the issue of elementary education. That said, councilmember Wells failed to discuss any of the challenges plaguing DCPS’ secondary schools. Councilmember Wells wasted little time in throwing a political jab at Mayor Gray, specifically about the number of elementary schools closed during Gray’s administration. Rather than simply pouncing on Mayor Gray’s record of school closures, councilmember Wells pivoted to advocate for investing in quality elementary schools within each neighborhood. The pro public education crowd rewarded this strategy with cheers and applause. Although councilmember Wells turned in a solid performance, he will have to discuss the needs of DCPS traditional public middle schools, especially in the most disadvantaged wards. Advocating for more quality elementary schools, alone, is not a comprehensive approach to fixing ALL public schools in the District.
D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange
Although D.C. councilmember Vincent Orange appeared a seasoned politician, his remarks on education reform were, by and large, supportive of the current system. For the most part, the veteran councilmember failed to woo the pro public school audience. That said, councilmember Orange did manage to score points with his advocacy for early elementary education. Although his plea for more funding received applause and praise, his use of the term “pipeline” was ill-advised. The councilmember repeatedly used the phrase “pre-kindergarten to UDC (University of the District of Columbia) pipeline” to advocate for a policy to fund a student’s academic career within D.C. Although his idea is noteworthy, the term “pipeline” in often used to describe the relationship between a zero tolerance policy and the increasing high school drop out and juvenile incarceration rates. If councilmember Orange wishes to gain support from the pro public school crowd, he must find a new slogan, or term, to describe his signature proposal.
Christian Carter, a former D.C. contractor, definitely provided the evening’s theatrics, but his lack of substantive proposals failed to win over any serious voter in the audience. Mr. Carter, by far, provided one of the most awkward moments of the evening. When asked what grade Mr. Carter would assign to the Mayor and DCPS as a whole, Mr. Carter blatantly stared down Mayor Gray prior to providing a resounding, “F!” Throughout his response, Mr. Carter continued to alternate his position on stage between facing the audience and facing Mayor Gray, directly. For his part, Mayor Gray simply turned the other way, and ignored this amateurish maneuver. Although Mr. Carter provided the “entertainment,” he resembled a disgruntled parent or teacher more than a mayoral candidate.
Reta Jo Lewis
Although former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis won moments of applause, her performance was less than stellar. At times, Mrs. Lewis’ responses were inaudible, partly due to the low quality of microphones used during the event. Though it was difficult to understand her responses, one response was interesting. After being asked how she would secure teaching assignments for qualified “excessed” teachers within the District, Mrs. Lewis appeared to verbally stumble. For an uncomfortable minute, or two, she attempted to “talk her way into an answer.” If she intends on gaining the pro public school vote then she will have to do her homework.
Andy Shallal, an artist, social entrepreneur and the founder of Busboys and Poets, was the clear winner of the night. In comparison to the other candidates, Mr. Shallal’s words resonated the most with the pro public school audience. In addition, Mr. Shallal provides the starkest contrast to the current education reform agenda in D.C. Unapologetically, Mr. Shallal claimed that since 2007 the current reform agenda has “changed the way we put the public in public schools — people have become more disenfranchised, disaffected and disrespected.” Jab after jab, Mr. Shallal flipped the education reform agenda on its head by challenging the growth of charter schools, the high levels of teacher “turn,” and the rising inequality in the current public education system. But, perhaps, the most lethal punch line of the night came in the form of a right hook: Mr. Shallal boldly asserted, “our schools aren’t failing, we are failing our schools.” There’s very little doubt in my mind that, during this WTU sponsored town hall event, Mr. Shallal took a huge first step toward securing the pro public education vote in D.C.
Is Andy Shallal the next Bill de Blasio?
Whereas Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio won the hearts and minds of teachers and parents alike, D.C.’s mayoral candidates, until recently, have more or less “toed” the education reform line. For example, none of the DC councilmember-candidates, i.e. Jack Evans, Mayor Vincent Gray or Tommy Wells, proclaim a need to slowdown education reforms, in any way, shape or form. However, just when you thought this race would offer pro public education supporters with “more of the same” education reform rhetoric, Andy Shallal may, in fact, challenge the status quo. Only time will tell if Mr. Shallal can continue to muster enough political support, both in terms of campaign finances and human capital, needed to convert enthusiasm into actual votes. If so, D.C. may become the next major city to elect a mayor that openly calls for a renewed approach to the promise of public education.