When former District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) superintendent Franklin Smith was summoned to the D.C. Council’s education committee one morning in December 1995 about reports that schoolchildren lacked essential suppliesincluding textbookshe downplayed the problem, contending that the rumors were a lot more smoke than fire.
Smith’s testimony, though, didn’t comport with the state of affairs in teacher Emily Washington’s humanities classroom at the School Without Walls. Despite repeated entreaties to school administrators, Washington couldn’t get enough books for her students in core subjects, and she wanted the public to know about it.
“I had another teacher sign my class out,” says Washington, tracing her steps to the hearing that morning. “We sneaked out the door in the back and went down to the city council.” Washington says she told her students that if they wanted to speak out about not having their books, this was their big chance. Education committee members listened intently as a half-dozen students, one by one, listed all the textbooks DCPS had failed to provide. Together, their testimony limned a convincing counterpoint to the rosier picture Smith and other DCPS administrators had painted.
“There were school officials saying there was no textbook shortage, and there was a teacher with her students saying that there was,” says Jim Ford, a former education committee staffer. “It did force the superintendent to say he would take follow-up action to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”
The brass at DCPS should have expected nothing less from Washington. Ever since starting as a D.C. teacher in 1974, she has railed against the schools’ lousy facilities, scarce supplies, neglect of students, and ankle-high academic standards. Her constant haranguingoften before the council and other groupshas echoed the gripes of parent groups and activists. But it was a refreshing message to hear from someone within DCPS’s corporate culture, which has always rewarded acquiescence above all else.
Last November, Washington’s credentials as a rabble-rouser earned her an appointment to the nine-member board of trustees created by the control board to fix the mess left by Smith and the elected school board. The control board packed the trustees panel with heavy-hittersincluding chairman Bruce MacLaury, the president emeritus of the Brookings Institutionto ensure that the school crisis received steadfast attention. It also needed a ringer like Washington, who could spot the system’s recesses of fat and incompetence on any given flow chart. “She’s not going to go along to get along, and that’s what this board needs,” says D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who lobbied to get Washington named to the trustees board.
Until recently, Washington kept her contrarian ways under wraps, falling in as one more reliable vote on a board that votes unanimously on most issues, with an occasional objection from Don Reeves, the elected school board’s representative on the trustees board. Then came this summer’s missteps by schools CEO Gen. Julius Becton, who is delivering an academic plan months late and has forced postponement of the start of classes by three weeks thanks to a sluggish school repair program.
Although most trustees have bought Becton’s excuses for the problems, Washington has stepped out in recent days and joined Reeves in putting the onus directly on DCPS’s appointeaucracy. Her disillusionment could signal the formation of an opposition block on the trustees board and the only avenue for public accountability in the entire control board regime. Where once Washington was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, she is now beginning to ask fundamental, and potentially embarrassing, questions. “At the end of the 1997-98 school year, what will be different?” asks Washington pointedly. “I’m afraid that nothing will be different.”
The board of trustees fancies itself the antithesis of the deposed elected board, which became famous for raucous public sessions, personal grudges, and racial divisions. MacLaury and Becton’s desire to turn a new page has brought an almost paranoid protocolholding weekly meetings in secret, discouraging dissent, and tightly controlling official information about DCPS operations. The panel has so far gotten away with the commando routineit shamelessly tramples on freedom of information laws and meets in public with the frequency of a lunar eclipse.
Washington received a tutorial in the trustees’ ways in early March, when she arrived at a meeting with the control board a few minutes late.
“I couldn’t get a read on what was going on,” she says about the session she interrupted. “As usual, they were talking about real estate.” After fidgeting through the discussion, Washington jumped on a control board member’s flip question about whether all was “going well” for the trustees. “No, things are not going well,” she recalls having blurted about the stalled academic plan. Her outburst was strike twotalking out of turn. “Everything got very quiet,” she says. “Becton and Bruce, they were pissed. I could tell.”
Reeves was the first member to raise a public fuss over the board’s modus operandi. In a series of clashes chronicled by the city’s dailies, Reeves has slammed MacLaury for allowing his wife to sit in on meetings, closing sessions to the public, and giving DCPS administrators free rein on important matters like planning the school roof replacements. “Franklin Smith would propose something and the [elected] board would go along with it,” says Reeves. “It’s the same thing now. The problem is that you can’t see it.” However, Reeves can spout off day and night without worrying MacLaury. As the representative of the elected board, Reeves’ opinions are often dismissed, even by those who agree with him, as the rantings of a disenfranchised member of the body that created the school’s problems to begin with.
Washington, on the other hand, presents a more difficult challenge. She has been taking the school system’s measure since 1974, when she left a teaching position in Prince George’s County for a DCPS post. “I went from one system that told me all you have to do is teach to one that told me all I had to do was shut up,” she says.
She never followed that advice. Early on, she spoke out against DCPS for busing her son from her Southeast home to a Northwest elementary school. She soon became a prominent critic on a broad range of school issues and routinely panned DCPS administrators for shortchanging schools in poor neighborhoods while showering resources on schools in Northwest. She claims that her complaints managed only to get her unrequested transfers, some of which she battled in court.
While Washington policed DCPS management, she also built a reputation as an outstanding teacher, helping lift a magnet math/science program at Ballou Senior High School from an embarrassment to an educational model. In 1979, she tried in vain to parlay her achievements in D.C. schools into a seat on the school board, and a year later made an unsuccessful stab at the D.C. Council.
Through it all, Washington has learned how to corner her opponents. Her style, however, is anything but complicated: She comes straight at you with volume and invective. “I have passion, but people call it hate,” she says. “It’s like Michael Jordan and playing basketball. It’s my life.”
Washington’s passion was on display at an April trustees hearing on a controversial proposal to shutter 18 DCPS facilities. As her colleagues prepared to vote to save schools catering to children from the city’s better-off neighborhoods, Washington accused them of capitulating to wealthier constituentscharging that calls to protect
“academically superior” schools were code for validating class inequities. Washington says she was staying true to her belief that DCPS neglects poorer students, but audience members heard instead an anti-white diatribe. “I think she’s one of the biggest racists I’ve ever encountered,” says one white Ward 3 resident who attended the hearing.
Despite her misgivings, Washington did not oppose the broader goal of the school-closing effortdespite widespread criticism that the trustees were being driven more by real estate concerns and less by the school system’s future space needs. Washington had also been behind the board’s months-long efforts to revise the DCPS curriculum and choose a new academic director. However, she now openly criticizes Becton and MacLaury for acting slowlythe new curriculum is still incomplete, and the new academic director won’t come on board until this week.
“I’d held back, hoping that the pace would accelerate,” Washington says about having kept her peace until now. She says she won’t wait any longer, however, on a trustee board that has wavered, tolerated mistakes, and stretched its honeymoon to the limit. “Dammit, we’re just not moving fast enough,” she says.
Since breaking ranks two weeks ago, she has become a sharp pain in the backside of Becton, DCPS staff, and the board itself. Washington doesn’t buy Becton’s excuse that advocacy group Parents United caused the delay in school openings by refusing to drop its lawsuit over fire-code violationswhich has empowered a D.C. judge to close the dozens of schools undergoing repairs. “The trustees, I think, should have been more vigilant, and we still need to be more vigilant,” she says, criticizing the board’s oversight of the repair work.
Washington is also unwilling to go along with the board’s decision to keep all trustee meeting records confidential, offering copies of the documents in her possession. She takes aim as well at DCPS staff for failing to administer a literacy test to graduating seniors, which the trustees requested in hopes of offering remediation to underachievers. “We thought it was a done deal,” she says angrily, adding that administrators cut corners and effectively avoided the order. “I don’t think they ever intended to test them.”
Washington attributes her change of heart to Becton’s Aug. 18 decision to reappoint all but 12 of the system’s 146 principals. The move feeds, in Washington’s words, “a cycle of failure…by putting principals back in schools that they could not operate. I think to break up the culture of failure, you have to purge the system of the people who created the culture.” While she voted for a measure Becton has loudly toutedreducing the standard reappointment for principals from three years to oneshe says Becton failed to use the new power to its full extent.
Fellow trustee Elliott Hall says he and other board members respect Washington’s opinions but don’t share her impatience. “When she talks, we listen,” he says. “In our view, she has lived through several generations of leadership as a teacher and is frustrated. But we have been in business all of nine months. What we have accomplished in nine months is absolutely phenomenal.”
Washington emphasizes that she’s not carrying water for DCPS teachers, a position that rankles the Washington Teachers Union (WTU). Since Washington holds the slot reserved for a teacher (the board reserves five seats for citizens who live or work in D.C. and one each for the CEO, the elected board president, an educator, and a parent), the union expected that she would defend its turf in board deliberations. “That was our understanding,” says WTU vice president Esther Hankerson. Soon after her appointment, however, Washington declared her independence from WTU, saying the board charter doesn’t mandate “representation” for teachers.
Although Reeves appears a natural ally for Washington in her assault on the trustees board, they’re not exactly planning a coup together. “He vacillates too much,” says Washington, arguing that Reeves is torn between representing angry D.C. constituents and making his tenure on the trustees productive. For his part, Reeves says he believes Washington has yet to prove she won’t kowtow to the trustee party line.
Even setting aside Reeves’ doubts, it remains to be seen whether Washington can crack the culture of secrecy and put some heat on administrators, or whether she’ll simply become another isolated pocket of dissent. Former school board president Calvin Lockridge believes the board will turn to her before it turns on her. “I think she’s going to be able to make an impact on the board members because they’re operating in the dark,” he says. “I think right now it’s time for her to speak up.”CP