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In his first speech dedicated to education, Mayor Vince Gray refrained from laying out any dramatic new proposals, instead highlighting the city’s recent successes in public education and stressing the need for continuity.
“The plans and proposals I share with you may not send out seismic shockwaves or make big headlines,” Gray said this afternoon, “but they will make a real difference to District families and students.
Gray delivered the address at the gymnasium shared by Savoy Elementary School and Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Anacostia—-a fitting setting for a speech emphasizing that charters and traditional public schools aren’t engaged in a “zero-sum game” but can work together. But Gray was forced to shout most of his speech over loud protests from the perennially disruptive group Empower DC.
Before the speech began, a group of children in cheerleaders’ outfits organized by Empower DC ran in front of the stage and conducted a series of cheers taunting Gray, including “Shame on Mayor Gray! Don’t take public schools away!” The children and the Empower adults continued to heckle Gray after he began speaking, leading Gray staffers to fret over how to quiet them in the absence of a substantial security presence until they were finally escorted out.
Gray appeared slightly flustered by the loud protesters but did not pause his speech or acknowledge the protesters until the end of his address. “We had an affirmation and a reaffirmation of democracy today,” he said. “I hope everyone will bring that level of energy to this work.”
The mayor laid out three “overarching strategies” for improving education in the city: “to scale up existing pockets of excellence to serve more students,” “to strengthen existing schools and programs,” and “to simplify the way families access all aspects of our education system.” Most of the elaboration of these strategies was a review of policies already in place or plans already announced. The few new proposals, such as allowing public schools to feed into charters or vice versa, weren’t exactly earth-shattering after the much more substantial changes implemented by Gray’s predecessor Adrian Fenty. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says that’s intentional: There’s a need for continuity rather than one huge overhaul after another.
Gray’s speech comes two weeks after At-Large D.C. Councilmember (and potential mayoral candidate) David Catania, who chairs the Council’s education committee, introduced seven bills aimed at reforming the education system. Catania sees Gray’s proposals as a belated response to his own.
“I look at this as an endorsement of the seven bills I introduced two weeks ago,” Catania says of Gray’s speech. “This is a lot more timid. It acknowledges the problems my bills address, but the solutions are tepid.”
But Catania questions why Gray waited so long to give an education address. “I think it’s three years too late,” he says. “This seems reactionary. We should have heard this about 900 days ago.”
Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith says Gray’s ideas have some things in common with Catania’s, but thinks Catania’s bills contain some problems. “We are still in the process of looking at what’s in there,” she says of Catania’s legislation. “There are pieces we agree with and pieces that we think are duplicative or frankly undermine our efforts.”
Photos by Aaron Wiener