Meet 15 candidates running for the D.C. State Board of Education

But while these nonpartisan positions wield little power, they have become symbolic battlegrounds over the future of public education — and the members of the board have emerged as visible education advocates in the city.

Some of the issues dividing the board are mayoral control and, of course, how schools should safely reopen. They also have different opinions on the five-star rating system of schools. The ratings — part of a broader school report card — aim to make school data more accessible. But critics fear the reliance on test scores will reserve the highest accolades for schools that educate the city’s wealthiest students and give paltry ratings to schools that serve the District’s vulnerable children.

This election cycle has drawn nearly 20 candidates for five open seats. (Frazier O’Leary, who holds the Ward 4 seat, is running for reelection unopposed.) And the candidates have attracted tens of thousands of dollars in donations from across the country.

These profiles are based on candidates’ answers in interviews and have been edited for space and clarity.

Ward 2

Allister Chang, 30, is fellow at Halcyon, a nonprofit incubator. Chang is a visiting researcher at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Opinion of mayoral control: We need to develop a plan for how we move the State Board of Education from a symbolic role to a more meaningful role for residents. 

Opinion of five-star rating: The top-rated schools tend to serve the students from wealthiest families. We need to improve how we collect and analyze data so we are not penalizing teachers and schools for educating students who come from “at-risk” backgrounds. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? We need to offer more outdoor options, given that teachers do not feel comfortable going back to buildings because they don’t know whether HVAC systems will be up to par.

Biggest issue in your ward: My top priority is that every student is equipped with 21st-century literacy. 

Christopher Etesse, 47, runs a cybersecurity boot camp company that partners with universities.

Opinion of mayoral control: I am in favor of mayoral control.

Opinion of five-star rating: The more data you have, the more you can improve.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I am in favor of reopening all schools immediately with safety precautions. 

Biggest issue in your ward: I have worked in education technology for 20 years. My goal in running is that I believe I can be helpful to the entire district because of my experience in virtual learning worldwide.

James Harnett, 22, is a senior at George Washington University and the chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A.

Opinion of mayoral control: It does not serve our students.

Opinion of five-star rating system: It’s really important we move away from an emphasis on standardized testing. A one-star evaluation devalues and dehumanizes students who attend a one-star school.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? We need to be doing all we can to get our youngest students — especially those with special needs — back in schools. I don’t think we can do it on a larger scale until we have buy-in from the unions.

Biggest issue in your ward: Making sure we are investing more money into our public schools. We have to fight tooth and nail for the investments we’ve been able to get.

Sarah Mehrotra, 28, is a data and polling analyst at Education Trust, a nonprofit aimed at closing the achievement gap.

Opinion of mayoral control: The State Board of Education should have greater autonomy and oversight of schools. 

Opinion of five-star rating: Rating systems make sense for hotels, but they do not work for schools. It is biased against low-income students. It should account for more growth measures. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? The reopening did not engage teachers along the way, and it is not detailed enough for teachers and staff to feel comfortable. We need far more details.

Biggest education issue in your ward: Overcrowded middle and high schools.

Ward 7

Charles Boston, 45, is an operating engineer who provides technical training to students.

Opinion of mayoral control: With mayoral control, there is zero democratic choice.

Opinion of five-star rating: It’s misleading. Students underachieve for a number of reasons. They’re hungry and bullied. You can’t judge a school off a test score.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? They locked parents out of the conversation. There’s no respect for parents. But virtual learning is not working, and they need to explore more outdoor learning. 

Biggest issue in your ward: Students are not being prepared. Suspensions remain high, fewer students are graduating, low attendance. A lot of this stems from external factors. It starts in the community.

Dontrell Smith, 32, is a federal government worker and former substitute teacher.

Opinion of mayoral control: The State Board of Education should regain its rights like other boards across the country. The board should oversee the schools and select the chancellor. 

Opinion of five-star rating: I would not get rid of it, but I would modify it, because there is too much of an emphasis on standardized tests. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? Until we get a vaccine or better control of the virus, we should not go back to school, especially our younger students.

Biggest issue in your ward: Equity. Schools should be like Chick-fil-A. You should always get good food and customer service, no matter the location. Regardless of what school you pick in the District, they should all be the same high quality. 

Karen Williams, 69, is the incumbent.

Opinion of mayoral control: If she appoints the right people, I believe in the mayoral control of schools.

Opinion of five-star rating: A lot of people do not like it because they feel it condemns their schools, but if people looked at it as a way to raise the bar for your school, it would be helpful. Parents do need a way to rate their schools. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? We do not know what is happening with the virus. So until we have an all-clear, I have a problem with students going back to school.

Biggest issue in your ward: We have an influx of families moving into the ward. But the downside is that most of those families will not send their kids to public schools in the ward. So they are traveling far to school.

Eboni-Rose Thompson, 33, is the chair of the Ward 7 Education Council and the grant officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Opinion of mayoral control: It is time for us to revisit the mayoral control of schools.

Opinion of five-star rating: It does not reflect whether or not schools are quality schools. The things that matter most to my family — programs and school culture — are not reflected enough in the ratings.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I wouldn’t call it a plan. I have too many questions to disagree or agree. I look forward to a plan.

Biggest issue in your ward: We don’t have a comprehensive plan for education that guides where schools and programs should be. Having that would make it possible to effectively invest in schools so we can guarantee a good school in every neighborhood. 

Ward 8

LaJoy Johnson-Law, 31, is a parent support specialist at Advocates for Justice and Education, a local advocacy organization. She’s the mother of a daughter with special-education needs.

Opinion of mayoral control: We need to expand the State Board of Education’s authority. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education should report to the state board, not the mayor.

Opinion of five-star rating: It is not fair to rank our schools on a rating system, since they are a product of the resources given to them. Is it really fair to give a school one star?

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? Her decision should apply to all schools receiving D.C. tax dollars. We need to have a collaborative approach to reopening schools, because there are so many families with students in charters and DCPS.

Biggest issue in your ward: We have the most children in Ward 8, and there are no Black parents or parents of color on the state board. It’s important to have representation.

Carlene Reid, 36, is a program specialist at the Education Department. She has a PhD in educational leadership and management.

Opinion of mayoral control: It should be relinquished. It eliminates checks and balances. 

Opinion on five-star rating: We should not be rating our schools the same way we rate our hotels and restaurants. We should not rely so heavily on student performance on standardized tests. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? We are rushing things a bit. We did not create comprehensive or school-specific plans with parent and teacher involvement. 

Biggest issue in your ward: The current funding formula does not serve our student needs east of the river. So we are using our money on things we should have already. 

Ryan Washington is on the ballot but could not be reached for an interview.

At Large

Troy Murphy, 38, is a former teacher.

Opinion of mayoral control: I don’t agree with it. One person should not be making all the decisions when you have a school board. But it is what it is right now.

Opinion of five-star rating: It should be abolished. It is inaccurate and invalid and a biased way to judge schools.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I disagree with it. We should be doing what teachers and administrators think is best, and most of the teachers and staff I have spoken to don’t think it’s safe to go back.

Biggest education issue in the city: The pandemic and whether kids can go back at this time. We need to get teachers what they need so they can do distance learning to the best of their abilities.

Jacque Patterson, 55, is the chief community engagement and growth officer at KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network.

Opinion of mayoral control: The Office of the State Superintendent of Education should be more independent. The mayor should be able to pick the superintendent, but the state board should have more authority over the superintendent.

Opinion of five-star rating: It needs to be redesigned. Less weight on standardized tests.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? If you don’t have the confidence of the people who need to come back, then I don’t think you are ready to come back to school.

Biggest issue in the city: Equity and equity in funding. Those who need the most should get the most.

Chris Martin, 42, is a real estate developer and entrepreneur.

Opinion of mayoral control: Having the Office of the State Superintendent of Education under mayoral control makes it less independent. The officer and superintendent should be part of the state board.

Opinion of five-star rating: While well-intentioned, it has failed to support the schools that need the most help. Defining a school as failing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for it.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I do.

Biggest issue in the city: Equity. I believe the most effective way to drive equity is to start at the beginning. We need to fully fund the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act.

Ravi Perry, 38, is the chair of the political science department at Howard University.

Opinion of mayoral control: I support a shared governance model where the mayor keeps some control, but the board has majority stake in the appointment of executive officials. Parents, teachers and community groups should have a stake as well.

Opinion of five-star rating: It’s morally compromising in that it suggests that certain neighborhoods and certain types of people — mainly Black, Brown, English-language learners and low-income students — are somehow not only learning in less-equipped environments, but are also somehow less capable of learning.

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I don’t agree with the way it was announced and the way — or rather lack of the way — in which stakeholders were engaged in the process.

Biggest issue in the city: Curriculum. Curriculum — mandating ethnic studies and requiring LGBT history — is the way we can ensure that students are prepared to be competitive in a global marketplace so that education can be the great equalizer.

Mysiki X. Valentine, 30, is the advocacy manager at the Fair Budget Coalition.

Opinion of mayoral control: It has been detrimental to democracy and to D.C. families. It needs to go. 

Opinion of five-star rating: It is not indicative of student growth. It has proven to be a racist system that resegregates schools. 

Do you agree with the mayor’s November school reopening plan? I have a lot of questions. My take is that the mayor needs to do a better job of engaging with families and teachers about what they need to do to reopen schools — if at all. 

Biggest issue in the city: Inequities to Black and Brown students. When we know that not all students are receiving a quality education, we know that it hurts certain demographics of students. 

Dorothy Douglas is on the ballot but could not be reached for an interview.

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