Par­ents fu­ri­ous at Bowser’s re­ac­tion to pref­er­ence given to o∞cial’s son

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - THE DISTRICT BY PETER JAMI­SON AND AARON C. DAVIS peter.jami­son@wash­post.com

Not many top­ics in lo­cal gov­ern­ment grab James Hunter’s at­ten­tion, but the District’s pub­lic-school lot­tery is one of them. He says that what he saw and heard from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last week about al­le­ga­tions that a mem­ber of her cab­i­net by­passed the lot­tery to en­roll her child in a top school made him “livid.”

Hunter, 38, a Capi­tol Hill res­i­dent whose daugh­ter was matched through the lot­tery with a pre-K pro­gram at Miner Ele­men­tary School, said he was up­set to learn that Deputy Mayor Court­ney Snow­den had her son spe­cially placed at Capi­tol Hill Montes­sori at Lo­gan, which has a waiting list of more than 1,000 fam­i­lies.

But what added in­sult to in­jury, Hunter said, was Bowser’s in­sis­tence this past week that Snow­den had done noth­ing wrong.

“I’m very puz­zled that the mayor doesn’t seem to un­der­stand that this is wrong and un­ac­cept­able,” he said. “If it turns out that this re­ally is a type of crony­ism, and she knew about it and didn’t do any­thing about it, she’s lost my vote.”

Hunter was among a half-dozen par­ents in­ter­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post who said they were trou­bled — and in some cases deeply an­gered — by rev­e­la­tions that seven peo­ple im­prop­erly re­ceived pref­er­en­tial treat­ment from then-D.C. Pub­lic Schools Chan­cel­lor Kaya Hen­der­son, in­clud­ing at least one mem­ber of Bowser’s cab­i­net.

A com­mon theme in their com­plaints was that while the un­der­ly­ing be­hav­ior looked bad, Bowser’s re­ac­tion was worse. The mayor has as­serted that Snow­den did not err by ask­ing Hen­der­son for a spe­cial school place­ment, and that the fault — if any — was Hen­der­son’s for say­ing yes.

Af­ter days of me­dia at­ten­tion, Bowser’s spokesman said late Fri­day that she would is­sue a tem­po­rary mo­ra­to­rium on spe­cial or “dis­cre­tionary” school trans­fers while Chan­cel­lor Ant­wan Wil­son, Hen­der­son’s suc­ces­sor, is al­lowed 30 days to craft new rules for such trans­fers.

Bowser will also re­quire that may­oral ap­pointees con­sult with the city’s Board of Ethics and Govtech­nolo­gies ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity be­fore ask­ing for spe­cial place­ments for their chil­dren, and that the chan­cel­lor like­wise con­tact the ethics board when­ever a pub­lic of­fi­cial re­quests a place­ment. Kevin Har­ris, the mayor’s spokesman, said the new guide­lines “will help to bring more ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency around the school chan­cel­lor’s au­thor­ity.”

How­ever, the mayor has shown no sign that she sees a prob­lem with Snow­den’s role in the schools con­tro­versy, which was in­ves­ti­gated by the D.C. in­spec­tor gen­eral.

“The deputy mayor did what was avail­able to her, and the chan­cel­lor made the de­ci­sion,” Bowser said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day. “The chan­cel­lor is the ed­u­ca­tor in this equa­tion and in the best po­si­tion to make that de­ci­sion.”

Kris­tene Blake, 32, a Capi­tol Hill res­i­dent who tried but failed to win a preschool spot for one of her two chil­dren through the lot­tery, called Bowser’s rea­son­ing “ridicu­lous.”

“I don’t buy that at all,” said Blake, who works for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “That’s in­fu­ri­at­ing.”

“Noth­ing seems to sur­prise me any­more, so I wasn’t sur­prised,” she said. “But I’m deeply an­gered, be­cause I went through and fol­lowed all of the rules.”

The ex­tent to which Bowser’s top aides are in­volved in the lot­tery case is un­known. A re­port by D.C. In­spec­tor Gen­eral Daniel W. Lu­cas found that Hen­der­son had mis­used her au­thor­ity to make school trans­fers by giv­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to seven gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the pub­lic, in­clud­ing two Bowser ap­pointees.

The Post re­ported last week that the in­spec­tor gen­eral delved into how the child of Snow­den, Bowser’s deputy mayor for greater eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, was placed at Capi­tol Hill Montes­sori at Lo­gan. Snow­den con­firmed that she re­quested a spe­cial place­ment but said she was merely tak­ing ad­van­tage of “an op­tion avail­able to ev­ery par­ent.”

On Thurs­day, Bowser said she be­lieved the in­spec­tor gen­eral had wrongly con­cluded that City Ad­min­is­tra­tor Rashad M. Young, her most pow­er­ful ap­pointed cab­i­net mem­ber, also re­ceived a spe­cial school place­ment. In fact, Young par­tic­i­pated in the lot­tery and en­rolled his chil­dren at a school where they were se­lected from a waiting list.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral has re­fused to make his re­port pub­lic but has shared it with Bowser and with D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber David Grosso (I-At Large), chair­man of the coun­cil’s Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee. Grosso said that in ad­di­tion to two Bowser ap­pointees, the re­port stated that five other peo­ple — a for­mer District elected of­fi­cial, a for­mer Obama White House staffer, the direc­tor of a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that works with the school district, a school prin­ci­pal and a for­mer class­mate of Hen­der­son’s — se­cured pref­er­en­tial treat­ment for chil­dren.

Grosso and the mayor have de­clined to re­lease the re­port, say­ing the in­spec­tor gen­eral asked them to keep it con­fi­den­tial. The re­port does not iden­tify those Hen­der­son helped by name, they said, although their iden­ti­ties can be in­ferred from other de­tails.

Wilma R. Har­vey, a past pres­i­dent of the D.C. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, said the re­port’s find­ings have al­ready un­der­mined con­fi­dence in the District’s lot­tery process.

“It’s un­fair for one group to have an ad­van­tage over another, no mat­ter who you are,” Har­vey said. “When you start pick­ing and choos­ing, it does give cause for pause about the in­tegrity of the sys­tem.”

She added, “I’ve been around long enough that, un­for­tu­nately, I think this kind of thing is the norm, not the ex­cep­tion, if we are go­ing to be hon­est.”

Conor Wil­liams, a se­nior re­searcher at New Amer­ica’s Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy Pro­gram and fa­ther of two chil­dren who were placed at their school through the District’s lot­tery, said the dis­clo­sure of spe­cial treat­ment for the po­lit­i­cally con­nected was par­tic­u­larly un­for­tu­nate in the District, whose lot­tery has been held up as a na­tional model.

“That sys­tem works well and is a force for eq­uity when there’s no way to game the sys­tem and get your way in,” Wil­liams said. If fa­voritism pol­lutes the process, he said, “it just does huge dam­age” to the pre­sump­tion of fair­ness that un­der­lies the sys­tem.

“It’s just ex­tremely dispir­it­ing,” he said.

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