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Twenty-five minutes into Vince Gray‘s first debate since declaring his re-election plans, he found himself face-to-face with little-known candidate Christian Carter. Scolding the mayor like a high school student who had turned in especially bad homework, the longshot Carter told Gray that  D.C. Public Schools under his administration deserved an “F.” Gray looked the other way while the crowd cheered.

It may have been the low point of the night for the mayor, but the rest of Monday’s Washington Teachers Union debate at Eastern High School didn’t go much better for him. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells slammed the Gray administration’s handling of middle schools, while At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange lodged a comparison between Gray and Adrian Fenty, whose own education policies fueled opposition to his administration.

Gray, who can point to improved test scores under his administration and won the union’s endorsement in 2010, struggled to make his case in front of a hostile audience. “Something that you do may not be popular with everybody,” Gray said. “But the thing that ought to be popular with everybody is that we want positive outcomes for our children.”

The debate’s audience proved challenging for other candidates, too. After being booed for defending his 2007 D.C. Council vote in favor of mayoral control of the schools, Jack Evans, whose vigorous nodding to one of the mayor’s remarks made him seem like the mayor’s only friend in the room, had to appeal to panelist Rev. Graylan Hagler to calm the audience.

Afterward, Wells reflected on the rowdy crowd. “It was an opportunity for those that came here to make a statement to the mayor and those running for mayor,” he said.

Carter and restaurateur Andy Shallal seemed to fit best with the union’s agenda, both promising everything from keeping schools open to the end of mayoral control of schools under their hypothetical administrations. “I do believe that mayoral control has changed the way that we put the ‘public’ in public schools,” Shallal said.”It certainly has become a problem. People have become more disenfranchised and disaffected and disrespected.”

Leaving the school, Gray declined to say whether he thought the candidates’ dismal assessments of his education record were fair.

“I think people have to say whatever they say,” Gray said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery