Bowser's Win -- What Does It Mean for Education in DC? Potentially a lot

After vote counting delays, the results are (finally) in and Muriel Bowser has defeated scandal-tainted Vincent Gray in DC's Democratic mayoral primary.  Although the election turned, in major part, on Gray's shady 2010 campaign dealings, another key issue spelled trouble for Gray:  The absence of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  

Gray's base failed to appear at the polls yesterday in an election that saw the lowest turnout in 40 years of DC mayoral elections.  Why did they stay home?  Scandal fatigue may have depressed turnout among Gray supporters, but they also didn't have the fire in the belly because they didn't have Michelle Rhee to hate.  

Chancellor Kaya Henderson -- while also closing schools and enduring a continuing test cheating scandal -- has been far more tactful, even respectful, of community pressures and interests while managing DC's schools.  Gray could not rely on the anti-Rhee fervor to lock in big turnout (and margins) in Wards 7 and 8.  

Assuming Bowser gets past Independent David Catania in the fall, the big question is will Bowser keep Henderson?  She declined to state outright her support for Henderson in the primary race, suggesting she might be willing to use the powers of mayoral control to replace her, but Bowser has strong reasons to keep her.  For one, Bowser is going to need Henderson's touch to push through a redrawing of school zone boundaries that is on the agenda in the coming year.  

As Washington Post columnist (and Georgetown grad) Mike Debonis stated in a pre-election panel hosted last month by GU's Center for Social Justice,  The appointment of Kaya Henderson "solves a lot of political problems" faced by any DC Mayor.  She has shown an ability to balance the push for more transformative reforms against the needs of constituents, particularly in areas of the city facing big demographic shifts.  

Bowser's natural inclination -- like her mentor former mayor Adrian Fenty -- is to support charters, or even to make DC a "portfolio district" in order to break up the existing educational regime in the city.  But the dynamic pull of college-aspirant students into charters has already created enormous disruption of neighborhood schools and neighborhood affinities and ties in DC.  Combine the challenge of managing those changes with the task of redrawing school boundaries and you have a full educational agenda already.  

So Henderson, in my bet, stays.  But there's potentially a bigger payoff here if Bowser and Henderson can work together.

The current patterns of demographic flux in the city offer what DC-based writer and activist Sam Chaltain described on the Kojo Nambe show as a "once-in-a-generation chance" to promote racially and economically integrated schools in the District of Columbia.  

Populations are shifting and gentrification means that new areas of affluence are emerging in the District.  School boundaries in every city organize racial and class divisions of communities; the goal is to minimize those divisions by drawing lines that do not produce schools that are homogenous, racially or economically.

The upcoming challenge in DC is to create school zone boundaries that do not create high concentrations of poverty or affluence among students, as well as figure out how charters can promote racial and economic integration, rather than segregation.

If they can do that, Bowser and Henderson have a real chance to do something transformative (and rare) in urban education in the U.S.:  create a racially and economically diverse school system that is alive to educational innovation, but anchored in the strengths of communities.  

The historic tensions of race and class in DC will be exceptionally difficult to navigate, but by building trust and promoting school boundaries that integrate rather than divide changing neighborhoods, the results of this election could be momentous.