We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

There’s no controversy over whether the District’s black and Latino boys need help. They score worse on standardized tests than their white counterparts. They’re less likely to attend school, and even when they do, they take longer to graduate.

Just how the District government should help them, though, has created a lot of controversy. Last month, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, backed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, announced a $20 million plan to help minority boys. A currently undisclosed amount of money from the “Empowering Males of Color” initiative will go to starting an all-boys school in Ward 7 or 8.

Who could object to that, right? As it turns out, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Three weeks after Henderson’s announcement, Cheh’s office published a letter she sent to Attorney General Karl Racine about Henderson’s new program. Her question for Racine: Is this even legal?

The sight of Cheh, who represents many of the District’s wealthiest (and whitest) residents, questioning a program meant to help some of its poorest isn’t what LL would call a good look. The dispute has opened a gap between Cheh and other councilmembers, and threatens to quash one of the first major initiatives of Bowser’s administration. It’s also one of the first tests for the District’s first elected attorney general.

Councilmembers whose seats aren’t as safe as Cheh’s, be warned: Don’t try this at home. The optics of a white councilmember from Ward 3 going after the Empowering Males of Color program should put to rest any questions about whether Cheh wants to run city-wide. 

“‘Someone from Ward 3, where you may not have that many at-risk kids, well, why are you getting in this?’” Cheh says, paraphrasing her critics. “Well, I’m getting involved in this because I’m concerned about all the children that are at-risk, not just boys.”

Cheh thinks spending $20 million on minority young men is a great idea, she says. She just wants money for black and Hispanic girls, too. Without a similar program for females, Cheh suspects, the District could run afoul of Title IX, a section of federal law that mandates students’ genders can’t affect their educational opportunities.

“I think it’s pretty clear under the law you can’t just have special program and millions of dollars for one gender and not the other,” says Cheh, who teaches constitutional law at the George Washington University Law School.

Henderson declined to comment about Cheh’s letter, while Bowser administration spokeswoman LaToya Foster would only tell LL via email that they’re looking forward to Racine’s review.

That means the most heated reactions Cheh’s letter has provoked so far have come from At-Large Councilmember David Grosso and Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie. Three days after Cheh’s letter, McDuffie and Grosso, who chairs the Council’s education committee, published press releases supporting Henderson’s school plan.

McDuffie, who pushed Council legislation to give girls more athletic opportunities under Title IX, obliquely criticizes Cheh for not taking her questions directly to Henderson.

“If there’s anybody out there who has questions about a DCPS program, I think the first line of course would be to ask the chancellor and the representatives of DCPS,” McDuffie tells LL.

Cheh counters that McDuffie, who has a law degree of his own, hasn’t offered up legal arguments in favor of the program. In his letter to Racine supporting the program, McDuffie wrote that there are “reasonable disagreements” about part of the initiative.

“I asked Kenyan, because he’s a lawyer, ‘Did you offer a legal opinion to the attorney general?” Cheh says. “And he said, ‘No, I just offered a statement of support.”

(Indeed, McDuffie tells LL he’ll leave the actual legality of the initiative to Racine).

Another complaint about Cheh’s letter: that the public knows about it at all. Councilmembers who want a legal opinion from Racine can do it privately, raising questions about why Cheh opted to announce hers in a press release.

(For example, the identity of the people who asked for Racine’s opinion on a recent marijuana regulation hearing, which sent councilmembers scrambling to change the meeting into an officially “informal” discussion, has become one of the Wilson Building’s most amusing subplots. Racine’s office says staffers for three different councilmembers asked for the opinion, while Council Chairman Phil Mendelson isn’t so sure that’s accurate). 

Cheh, who describes herself as “a little surprised” by the backlash to her letter, said she publicized it to increase the chances of getting funding for similar programs for girls.

“Why not have the attorney general decide whether this is legal or not?” Cheh says. “Do we just kind of bury our heads in the sand and not possibly have the opportunity to help at-risk girls?”

Publicizing her request for an opinion may work out for Cheh, but it puts Racine in the unenviable spot of choosing between shooting down a popular program or potentially helping the District violate Title IX.

Despite being the District’s first elected attorney general—and running a media operation fit for for a politician, complete with a press conference photo-op before he reported for jury duty last month—Racine hasn’t shown interest in currying favor with his opinions so far. (Robert Marus, a spokesman for Racine, declined to disclose Racine’s position on the minority youth program or say when the opinion will be ready.) His marijuana opinion irked politically active pot users and statehood types, while he stopped representing Bowser after she considered breaking with him and supporting a popular budget autonomy referendum.

Considering Racine’s track record, Cheh’s letter fretting over Henderson’s initiative could either crush a potentially worthy program or expand its reach by requiring the same spending on girls. If it delays the new school, though, Professor LL has a lesson plan for the students in the meantime: Head down to the Wilson Building. They won’t learn about reading or responsibility, but they’ll get a lesson in how the sausage gets made.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery