Muriel Bowser
Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Some people have a knack for taking a difficult situation and making it worse for themselves. Such appears to be the case in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent handling of a couple high profile education-related issues.

Earlier this year, after taking months to prepare her budget, Bowser proposed a 1.5 percent per-pupil funding increase for D.C. Public Schools and charter students, heralding her overall education investments as the largest ever  in D.C.  history. 

Problem was, a working group she convened to advise on the matter recommended a 3.5 percent per-pupil increase, and critics immediately decried her proposal as insufficient not only to meet the school district’s needs, but also to keep pace with inflation and rising labor costs.

Then, with the budget session headed into overtime, Bowser issued what’s known as an “errata letter” that raised per-pupil funding by an additional 0.5 percent and re-allocated funds from her original proposal, ostensibly to make up for the shortfall. In the process, she alienated D.C. Councilmembers and generally pissed off education reform advocates of all stripes. 

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the Committee on Education, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh issued a blistering statement excoriating Bowser for “political gamesmanship” and a lack of transparency. Of Bowser’s letter, they wrote, “This bears all the hallmarks of an attempt to regain control of [allocated] funds. And it irresponsibly claims to have solved the uniform per student funding formula shortfall that the mayor created.”

What’s more, Bowser’s maneuver includes only one-time money, whereas the council had already worked to identify funds for a recurring increase that would be more sustainable.

“It’s a substantive change, and it’s in the middle of the process,” Cheh tells Loose Lips. “It’s complicated, like a multi-dimensional game of chess. She altered the process but didn’t solve the problem. Now the task falls to us.” 

Just a week earlier, Cheh had written to DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson expressing concern over budget cuts at Wilson High School that will lead to a loss of guidance counselors and other staff. Other schools are also facing staff cuts. Reform advocate Matthew Frumin says that the costs of teacher and assistant positions are going up more than 4 percent from last fiscal year. “So the same number of dollars does not let you have the same number of teachers,” Frumin says. “Buying power matters.”

The mayor’s increase would put local school funding at $632 million—up from $610 million. Her conciliatory bump would raise that to $634 million, according to DCPS spokesman Michelle Lerner. Which is just fine, she says. “DCPS and the chancellor thought 1.5 percent was enough,” Lerner says. “We will gladly take the increase.”

The budget increases will apply to charter schools as well, and school choice advocates such as PAVE—Parents Amplifying Voices In Education—disagree with the mayor’s party line. “That minimum increase of 1.5 percent was insufficient, falling well below the 3.5 percent increase that a working group convened by the mayor recommended,” says  Maya Martin, the group’s executive director. “With already tight budgets, and adding inflation and rising school costs and teacher salaries, [it] was was not enough to support our schools.”

Budget analyst Mary Levy is more blunt, noting that charters are already feeling pinched by the elimination of summer school funding on the rationale that funds for at-risk students could make up for the loss. Charters also pay for their own facilities maintenance and teacher retirement, Levy says. And on the traditional public school side, salary negotiations with teacher’s union loom—as does a 2.5 percent rate of inflation for all concerned, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. 

“Perhaps the mayor didn’t realize the extent of public discontent that school funding would generate,” she says, wondering what kind of budget trickery might be at play. “I haven’t talked to anyone who fully understands what is going on here. I suppose those who know won’t say.”

Bowser’s office says the errata letter stemmed from being “able to go back and find additional money.” But observers have been mystified with her responses to this and other public concerns of late, such as the controversy over preferential school placements for government officials bestowed by former Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Initially brushing those aside and claiming ignorance, Bowser poked the hornet’s nest that is the dreaded school lottery. Parents were pissed. Her subsequent suspension of discretionary placements and pledge to implement new rules were seen as too little, too late, coming only after Post reports.

There are any number of ways the mayor could have directed that narrative, and many are puzzling over where she gets her advice. “Her instinct seems to be to defend or justify,” says Cheh. “She has a tough job. That’s why you need good people around you to make sure you are coming up with productive solutions. I’m not sure she has that.”