An exam for D.C.’s would-be schools chief
Mr. Ferebee has a promising pedigree but deserves scrutiny from the D.C. Council.
WHEN KAYA HENDERSON resigned as schools chancellor, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) bypassed internal candidates to select someone from outside the system. Her choice was forced to resign after about one year when it was revealed that he had used his position to place his daughter in a coveted high school slot. Now, Ms. Bowser has again picked an outside educator to lead the District’s improving but still troubled public schools system. Hopefully, this time she got it right; the early signs are encouraging.
In choosing Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis D. Ferebee to replace disgraced former chancellor Antwan Wilson, Ms. Bowser belied her customary caution. The politically safer choice would have been interim chancellor Amanda Alexander. Ms. Alexander has earned a reputation as a smart and tenacious educator over two decades with the city’s schools, and as acting head she has provided steady leadership since Mr. Wilson was ousted nine months ago.
Clearly, though, Ms. Bowser saw the need for bolder action and more urgency in school reform and decided Mr. Ferebee has the experience and vision to meet the challenges still facing the schools. The son of two educators, Mr. Ferebee is a former teacher, principal and administrator with a history of turning around low-performing schools. He was, Chalkbeat reported, an unconventional choice for Indianapolis schools, the state’s second-largest system struggling with the challenges facing urban education, when he was hired in 2013 from Durham, N.C.
But he soon made a name for himself. Early in his tenure, he undertook his own review of the budget that uncovered a practice that reported the district as running a deficit, leading to programs and staff being cut, when in fact it was in the black. The district’s chief financial officer was fired, and teachers received long-overdue raises. Education Week profiled him in 2016 as a leader to learn from, highlighting his resolve in forging a partnership with charter schools. He also has received plaudits for his work in redesigning high school education and career and technical education.
Mr. Ferebee has said that the strategy in Durham was not the strategy in Indianapolis, and just as he started his work in Indianapolis with a listening tour to understand the needs and strengths of the schools, so will he do in Washington. He is right to want to do his homework. He is right also that there are no “silver bullets” in improving education. But it is important that the D.C. Council — which must confirm his appointment — press him on his ideas and goals. “We’re obviously not at a point where we are ready to run a victory lap,” he said of the schools. That’s clear. But the city will want to hear more about gains he wants to preserve as well as new directions he has in mind.
Lewis D. Ferebee in Washington on Dec. 2.