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In a stunning turn of events, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson has resigned just four days after it came to light that he sought the help of ex-Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles to place his child in a different school without going through the highly competitive school lottery process—all in violation of a DCPS policy that he himself wrote.
“I have accepted the resignation,” Mayor Muriel Bowsersaid on Tuesday at a hastily called news conference at the Wilson Building. Bowser said that over the holiday weekend, it became clear to her that the DCPS chancellor had lost the community’s trust and could no longer serve effectively. She said she “spent many days” struggling with a decision, and called Wilson both an “extraordinary educator” and “a human being that made a mistake.”
A majority of the 13-member D.C. Council—and leaders across the city—had said Wilson should step down. On Friday, Bowser fired Niles, but at first tried to save Wilson’s job to avoid a politically difficult search for a new chancellor in the midst of her run for re-election.
Wilson’s departure comes at a critical moment for DCPS, with the federal and local government investigating the system over inflated graduation and attendance rates. It has also only been a year since Wilson joined DCPS, relocating his family from Oakland, California. There, he served as superintendent of public schools and overspent on budgets, leading to significant financial stresses that have finally erupted.
Amanda Alexander, the chief of elementary schools for DCPS, will be the new interim chancellor, Bowser announced. Alexander had been considered for chancellor in previous searches. “My aim is to make sure that we finish the year strong,” she noted while addressing reporters.
The mayor said she will work with the D.C. Council to launch a selection process for the permanent chancellor. During the search that brought Wilson to the District, education advocates and parents voiced concerns that the Bowser administration was not totally complying with the law.
“Even the most devoted leader’s vision can’t become reality without trust, and Mr. Wilson broke that trust,” says Catharine Bellinger, the D.C. director of the PAC Democrats for Education Reform, in a statement. “We applaud the Mayor for moving swiftly to ensure DCPS schools and students have a leader who can rebuild public confidence and move the district forward.”
One thing that’s clear is that Bowser and some councilmembers don’t want to relinquish mayoral control over DCPS, which former Mayor Adrian Fenty‘s administration achieved in 2007. That move disempowered the D.C. State Board of Education and led to greater centralization of DCPS.
A few elected officials say they now want to take a broader look at the state of education in the District, both within and outside of the public school system. In a statement, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says Wilson’s resignation is in the “best interests” of residents, and adds that the next chancellor must focus on student learning, not just “paperwork and test scores.”
“We cannot have a central office that encourages cheating and fudging the numbers,” Silverman says. “I also believe we need to have a real conversation about our public education system, given that half of our students are in D.C. public schools and half are in D.C. public charter schools. We can’t treat these as two separate education silos.”
The swift personnel changes happened after the D.C. Inspector General’s office informed Bowser early last week that it was investigating the placement of Wilson’s sophomore daughter this school year from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Wilson High School, which has a long wait list. The daughter’s in-boundary school is Dunbar High School.
Thousands of parents go through competitive lotteries to place their children at out-of-boundary schools. Many are incensed at the favoritism Wilson received from Niles, the former deputy mayor. On Friday, Wilson apologized in a letter to the community, but this only angered parents who said he had lost the ability to lead the system. Comments he made on Monday to the press did not appear to help his case much, if at all.
In response to questions on Tuesday, Bowser said she didn’t know of the Niles-Wilson transfer until the Inspector General notified her. Dropping her head a bit in a sign of bewilderment that many share, she said the chancellor and the deputy mayor’s coordination was “inexplicable” to her.
In large part, that’s because Bowser wrestled last year with the same issue of special school placements after revelations that former Chancellor Kaya Henderson had granted transfers for the children of administration officials. Wilson helped write the new rules curbing favoritism, and he broke them for his own benefit just months later. “I was never involved in the request for a transfer for Chancellor Wilson’s student,” Bowser said.
Some political observers questioned why the mayor did not immediately oust Wilson along with Niles. “I am glad that we have not dragged this out anymore,” says At-Large Councilmember Robert White, in an interview. White, who was the first councilmember to call for Wilson to depart from DCPS, adds that the search for a new chancellor ought to follow a hard look at the problems DCPS faces, from the gaps in achievement between white students and students of color to a relative decline in DCPS enrollment as well as falsified graduation data.
“It would be a serious folly to bring on a new chancellor without first doing a diagnosis of our education strategy to understand exactly what we need,” White says. “Chancellor Wilson doubled down on those strategies, and it’s time to take a step back and examine them.”
Bowser said she wanted to investigate the situation more deeply after news of Wilson’s and Niles’ maneuvers broke. She noted that she took “corrective actions” like referring the matter to D.C.’s ethics board and having Wilson’s daughter unenrolled from Wilson High School.
Before Wilson’s resignation was announced, the mayor met on Tuesday morning with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the education committee, to discuss options. In a statement, Mendelson says Wilson’s resignation was “the consensus on the best way forward for our school system.”
“I am highly disappointed that our progress in public education has come to this point, and Mr. Wilson’s decision to skirt the system is indefensible,” says Mendelson, who is up for re-election this year. “The challenge—our challenge—is to overcome this moment, and recent scandals over attendance and graduation.”
Grosso says in a statement that he welcomes Wilson’s resignation, but is “concerned about stability” in DCPS. “The situation the city finds itself in is a major setback for public education in the District of Columbia—two top education leadership positions are now held by interim appointments,” he says, referring to Alexander and Ahnna Smith, who replaced Niles. “There has been great progress made in our schools, but that does not diminish the many challenges they still face.”
The education committee is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on DCPS tomorrow morning to receive testimony from public witnesses, but not DCPS leaders, who are set to testify before the committee in March.