Eric Goulet SBOE sign
Eric Goulet is adapting some signs from his Ward 3 Council run for his SBOE candidacy. Credit: Sarah Marloff

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On the surface, at least, the political positions of Eric Goulet and Michael Sriqui don’t seem all that different. So why is their hyperlocal Ward 3 race getting so heated? The two hopefuls for the ward’s State Board of Education seat are both middle-aged White guys with school-age kids. They both live in Palisades (a few blocks from each other, in fact) and have been active in D.C. politics to varying degrees over the years. They even have similar ideas about the big issues facing D.C. schools, focusing on overcrowding in local classrooms, improving literacy education, and retaining more teachers and support staff.

Nevertheless, the temperature is slowly but steadily rising in the race as Nov. 8 draws near. Things aren’t getting as heated as Goulet’s last race for the Ward 3 Council seat, of course, but the war of words sure has gotten a bit more intense than your typical sleepy state board race.

There have been skirmishes over campaign signs, but arguments between the two have centered, chiefly, on where each candidate sends their kids to school. Sriqui, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, sends his three boys to a local public school, while Goulet sends his two kids to private school.

Goulet, in his first interview with Loose Lips since publicly airing a variety of critiques of City Paper, says his family made that decision after failing to score pre-K slots for his kids in programs close to home, and he’d likely move them to public school if he won the SBOE race. But that has not stopped Sriqui and two of his most prominent backers (Attorney General Karl Racine and retiring Ward 3 SBOE Rep. Ruth Wattenberg) from frequently noting that he’s the only candidate in the race with students in D.C. Public Schools.

“I’m upfront with people about it, because I don’t want anybody to think I’m trying to be somebody I’m not,” Goulet says.

Michael Sriqui, left, and Eric Goulet are facing off for the Ward 3 SBOE seat. Credit: Michael Sriqui/Eric Goulet

It may seem like a petty dispute, but Sriqui and his supporters believe it speaks to Goulet’s broader lack of familiarity with issues in Ward 3 schools. Goulet touts his years of experience working in the Wilson Building as evidence of his readiness for the job, but in all that time, Sriqui says he wasn’t working on matters of vital importance to the neighborhood.

“We could have used someone with his experience and his connections to help us,” says Sriqui, who has also worked on a local school advisory team in the ward. “But he didn’t, and part of the reason that he didn’t is because he has such little personal connection to the schools.”

In many ways, this dispute is emblematic of all SBOE races in these days of mayoral control of schools. Unlike a traditional school board, the SBOE has little actual power (pretty much all of that lies in the executive branch), so that makes these races a bit muddled. It’s difficult to find many policy differences on the arcane matters within the board’s control—who wants to argue about setting academic standards or crafting graduation requirements for high schoolers?—so campaigns are often based on each candidate’s personal background instead.

Inevitably, those clashes about identity end up bringing the central tension undergirding D.C. education politics (public vs. charter) to the surface. The SBOE might not have much to do at all with labor disputes or charter administration, but if they say nice things about the value of worker power and criticize Mayor Muriel Bowser and her education-focused deputies, they can grab the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Do the opposite, and they can win the support of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform and pro-mayoral control Washington Post editorial board.

These dynamics have certainly played out in this year’s competitive races. On the one side, the WTU has backed Sriqui in Ward 3, Robert Henderson in Ward 5, and Joshua Wiley in Ward 6. On the other, the Post picked Goulet, Carisa Stanley Beatty in Ward 5, and Brandon Best in Ward 6. DFER similarly backed Beatty and Best, but has not endorsed in Ward 3 despite mounting a massive, roundly criticized effort to boost Goulet in his Council race. (The union also backed charter school teacher Ben Williams in Ward 1, but he is running unopposed.)

It can be tempting to be reductive, distilling these races down to another round of “reformers” vs. unions, moderates vs. progressives. LL will try to resist the temptation, but it’s hard not to see the battle lines being drawn.

“That is a helpful binary for folks who want the world to be simple,” says current Ward 6 SBOE Rep. Jessica Sutter, who decided not to seek re-election after winning the seat (with DFER’s backing) four years ago. “But I like to go back to the work, and the work is not so simple. I think it’s important for folks to get underneath that.”

A worthy goal, to be sure. But, by and large, the candidates agree on many of the policy issues that they’ll actually cast votes on as board members. Maybe there are some small disagreements here and there on how, exactly, to reform methods for teaching reading to young kids, but that’s not what campaigns are waged over.

Instead, it does often come down to personal backgrounds and values, which are often intertwined. Some board members argue that the biggest difference they can make is by using the seat as a megaphone to bring feedback from parents and teachers to decision makers in the Wilson Building, or organize pressure campaigns to force change. And in that context, the issues that candidates plan to use their voices to speak up on matter.

“When you scream from the top of a mountain, more people can hear you,” says Wiley, an assistant principal at a public school. “Even though the state board doesn’t have the direct power to change some of these things, I think being the ally in the fight for and against these things will definitely help … When people are working for a new contract, for example, you’re right there, hand-in-hand with them.”

Brandon Best, left, and Joshua Wiley are squaring off in the Ward 6 SBOE race. Credit: Brandon Best/Joshua Wiley

The WTU’s three-year-long fight for a new union contract certainly hangs over the race, particularly because Wattenberg and other board members believe the SBOE made a real difference in bringing concerns about working conditions (and their impact on teacher retention) to the forefront in recent months. So it’s perhaps no surprise that DFER’s anti-union history attracts suspicion from many on the left, even as most can agree that the group’s new leadership is at least better than the executives that generated outrage with their intervention in the Ward 4 Council campaign two years ago.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for DFER skeptics to believe that a group that takes big checks from the Waltons of Walmart would support pro-union candidates. Similarly, the group’s pro-charter leanings also attract suspicion, even though, nominally, the SBOE plays no role in such matters (leaving that to the Public Charter School Board). “There is no way, no reason that private money should be in a public school race,” Wiley says, noting he didn’t want the group’s endorsement.

DFER has been quiet, so far, though there is good reason to suspect that will change in the race’s closing weeks: Its political arm reported receiving a $281,000 contribution from its parent group, Education Reform Now Advocacy, on Sept. 28, but had only spent $11,000 backing Best and Beatty as of Oct. 10. Of course, one could wonder whether the group will repeat its strategy from the Ward 3 Council race, flood local mailboxes, and hire a small army of paid canvassers after those tactics helped convince candidates to consolidate behind Matt Frumin to beat Goulet.

Wattenberg expects that it’s no coincidence that DFER has stayed out of the SBOE race in her ward after they “made fools of themselves” in the Council race. But Goulet says he’s not taking it personally, and it’s “probably the best place for me to be at” that he’s not fending off the same critiques about DFER’s support this time around. Sriqui is a bit more critical, arguing that Goulet’s “behavior after the last election with some of the rash comments he made on Twitter” likely scared DFER away (the group did not respond to a request for comment about its endorsement decisions).

The candidates who have won DFER’s support are cautious to embrace the group wholeheartedly. In general, they’re hoping that voters won’t rush to judge the organization and be willing to entertain a less binary view of the education debate, as Sutter describes.

“I know that there’s been a history of distrust between DFER and other groups,” says Best, a DCPS official-turned-charter school administrator who won DFER’s backing in Ward 6. “But I don’t know if everyone’s goals are as different as they appear. And I want to make sure that we don’t continue to follow a trend that we see in our national politics, where it’s all in absolutes and party loyalty is valued over what’s best for our area, so much so that you can’t even have a conversation across lines.”

Part of the challenge in breaking through those divisions is that many believe DFER only backs candidates who will be “completely supportive of everything the mayor does,” Wattenberg says. On most issues, she believes the board has become less of a “rubber stamp” for Bowser over the past few years, ensuring that the same mayor vs. Council politics bleed into debates at this level, too. Many existing board members have lined up behind candidates that they expect will continue that more skeptical posture.

“It’s not about being provocative or an agitator for the sake of it, but just playing the role of not accepting everything, calling out a lack of data or something like that,” says retiring Ward 1 Board Rep. Emily Gasoi, who is backing Wiley and Henderson. “At bottom, we all have the same goal, which is to do right by our school communities … but we can’t do that if all the agencies are really run by one person, under one authority, because there’s just too much conflict of interest.”

There is seemingly no way to escape a debate over mayoral control in any conversation about local schools. The issue became a huge flashpoint in the June primaries, particularly in the mayor’s race, and it has come up again in the SBOE races (though, again, any decision to curtail the mayor’s authority would have to come from the Council, not the board). But the SBOE has taken some steps to study school governance issues over the past few years, which has helped inform the tentative efforts on the Council to strip Bowser of some of her power.

Opinions on mayoral control tend to run the gamut, with plenty of room for steps in between the two extremes. Goulet is among the staunchest backers of the current setup of the whole field, as is Nina O’Neill, a teacher and foster mom running for the Ward 5 seat with the backing of many prominent local Republicans. Wiley is perhaps the fiercest opponent of mayoral control, saying it “makes no sense” that the SBOE has less power than ANCs, while Sriqui and Henderson would both favor making the Office of the State Superintendent of Education independent from the mayor as a sort of middle ground.

Best is more hesitant for change, but does say “it’s clear that school governance is something that’s confusing to our community,” and he’d assemble a “parent-teacher council” to help guide people to the right resources and navigate D.C.’s decidedly unusual system. Beatty, a Brookland parent and volunteer with the prominent advocacy group Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, supports the creation of a similar “parent advisory council,” though she views the governance debate as a bit esoteric.

“I don’t know that parents are sitting around talking about mayoral control,” Beatty says. “That’s sort of a political conversation.”

That’s why Beatty is focusing most of her energy on running a race highlighting her experience as a “working mom” and dubbing herself “the only person in this race that is a real-world practitioner and has experience solving real problems,” referring to her professional experience in banking and affordable housing finance. Henderson, the father of two public charter school students, counters that he’s “the only candidate who has been actively engaged with Ward 5 schools at a ward level” through his work on a local Education Equity Committee with outgoing Ward 5 Board Rep. Zachary Parker. The soon-to-be councilmember has endorsed Henderson as his replacement.

A similar debate over experience is playing out in Ward 6. Sutter, the outgoing board representative, has endorsed Best, citing his time as both a teacher and administrator in the public and charter sectors. But Wiley has spent time on both sides of the system as well, and argues that he has more on-the-ground experience with working with parents (and he’s picked up endorsements from Gasoi, Parker, Wattenberg, Ward 4 Board Rep. Frazier O’Leary, and Ward 8 Board Rep. Carlene Reid to bolster his credentials).

Add in the acrimony in Ward 3, and it’s clear that these races will come down to preferences over each candidate’s personal backgrounds more than policy. It’s difficult to tell, of course, where voters stand in such low-information races, but fundraising offers some clues (particularly because every candidate but Goulet is relying on small donors via the city’s public financing program).

In Ward 5, Henderson has raised a total of $31,500 and has $14,100 left in the bank, as of Oct. 10, while Beatty has raised $12,700 and has about $6,500 left. O’Neill appears to generally be a non-factor, raising a total of $1,430 for the campaign with just $150 left in the bank.

In Ward 6, Wiley has pulled in a total of $21,900 with $8,800 left for the stretch run. Best has managed to raise just $4,200 so far (though, with matching funds, his total should be closer to $22,000) and the campaign is reporting about $4,000 in debts.

Sriqui acquired about $21,000 so far in his Ward 3 race, with $13,700 left to spend. Goulet was barred from using the Fair Elections program after using public money in his Council run, and he has yet to raise any outside cash for this campaign. He took a job in Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s office once his Council bid fell flat, and he says he’s unsure whether city ethics rules allow him to fundraise for a political campaign while holding that role.

Goulet’s asked the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability for clarification, but has yet to receive any. That means he’s left working what angles he can to get his name out there, such as taping over his old Council campaign signs to advertise his current SBOE run (a move that he says the Office of Campaign Finance has allowed, so long as he doesn’t post them in public spaces and confines them to supporters’ yards).

Of course, in such a low-interest race, where most voters barely know what it is the SBOE really does, maybe the name recognition from his Council run will be enough to carry him over the line.

“Having all those flyers out there with your picture on it, it certainly helped,” Goulet says. “I wouldn’t trade my position for anyone’s at this point.”