D.C. voters had a philosophical question about public education to answer at the polls Tuesday: Did they want candidates who would more likely be fervent advocates of the traditional public school system, or those who would bolster public charter schools?
The usually sleepy races for the D.C. State Board of Education turned into a fight over the future of public education, with candidates backed by the teachers union facing off against contenders supported by a powerful charter advocacy organization.
Voters gave a resounding answer: Three of the four seats on the ballot went to candidates who were backed by the teachers union and were portrayed as proponents of traditional public schools. And they achieved substantial victories, vanquishing their opponents by double-digit margins.
The biggest surprise emerged in Ward 6, where incumbent Joe Weedon — among the most vocal supporters of neighborhood schools on the board — lost to Jessica Sutter.
The four State Board of Education races attracted 10 candidates and more than $225,000 in campaign donations. The school board’s nine seats — not all were up for election this year — are intended to be nonpartisan, and contenders do not compete in primaries.
While the candidates typically shunned the ideological labels that the race highlighted — and pledged to support both sectors — they embraced the donations and campaign volunteers that endorsements brought them.
Weedon, a parent of two middle school students, raised about $5,000 in his successful 2014 bid for the seat. This time, he raised about $18,000 compared with Sutter’s $22,000.
“I’m proud of the race we ran; it was grass-roots,” Weedon said. “There was a lot of money that came into the race, and I’m sure it played a role. We are going to continue to fight for quality neighborhood schools.”
The city’s elected school board was stripped of most of its power in 2007 when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wrested away control of the school system. Now, the State Board of Education is limited to setting broad policies governing graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.
The contentious elections came in a year when D.C. schools have been mired in scandals. Many of the races were defined by the candidates’ stances on how much power the mayor should have over the city’s schools.
In interviews with The Washington Post, most of the candidates endorsed by the Washington Teachers’ Union said that the mayor’s power should be curtailed and that they supported efforts to remove the state superintendent’s office from mayoral control. The other candidates said the governance structure should remain the same or undergo slight changes.
One of the most contentious races unfolded in Ward 1, with three candidates rooted in the education community facing off. Jason Andrean, Emily Gasoi and Callie Kozlak hoped to win the seat being vacated by Laura Wilson Phelan. Andrean received the endorsement of Democrats for Education Reform, a charter advocacy organization, and Gasoi had the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union. The candidates canvassed in neighborhoods, sent mailers and filled yards with signs.
Gasoi, who raised about $42,000 compared with Andrean’s $66,000, was the victor.
“It’s about our neighborhood schools and protecting them,” she said. “People want to have a voice and to have a system that is responsive. That resonated strongly with people.”
Candidates spent Election Day at voting precincts, talking to voters and handing out campaign literature to try to win over those who were undecided. Sutter, the Ward 6 winner, said she was impressed with the steady stream of voters she saw at the polls.
“The high-profile nature of the state board races this year means a lot more people came to the polls caring about who they were voting for,” Sutter said. “We had an engaged electorate.”
But, it turned out, not all voters were so engaged. Several voters interviewed Tuesday showed up to the polls not knowing much about the State Board of Education race.
At a Ward 1 polling location on Georgia Avenue NW, John Eze, a student, said he skipped the school board race because he didn’t know about the candidates.
Ari Kattan did the same.
“I’ve been so consumed with what’s going on nationally that I haven’t been paying as much attention locally as I should have,” Kattan said.
G. Dewey Stanyard Jr., a longtime homeowner in Ward 1’s LeDroit Park, said he received mailings from the candidates and thought they all appeared qualified. He settled on Andrean because his positions in his campaign flier resonated with him.
“I’m not putting a real dog in the fight,” Stanyard said. “All the candidates seemed genuine.”
At the Shaw Neighborhood Library in Ward 6, voter Regais Wilson said she landed on Sutter — who received the endorsement of the Democrats for Education Reform — after researching the contenders over the weekend.
“She was an advocate for equality,” Wilson said. “And after reading about what’s been happening in the schools in the news, it’s a good stance.”
Weedon had also said he wanted to tackle inequity in the city’s schools.
In Ward 3, incumbent Ruth Wattenberg beat Dora Currea. Zachary Parker defeated Adrian Jordan and William “Bill” Lewis in Ward 5.
As the polls closed, Jordan was at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington courting last-minute voters. If elected, he said, he would seek to engage parents in their children’s education.
“The difference between a quality school and a low-performing school is the parent and community involvement,” he said. “If we don’t have someone who is going to amplify parent voices in the city, we are going to have the status quo.”
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