On December 4th, Ward 4 voters head to the polls one last time in 2018. That’s when the special election for Ward 4 State Board of Education (SBOE) takes place.
Why wasn’t this on the general election ballot? DCist has some great background on that that you should read. Before reading my rationale for who I’m supporting in the race, you should also read my report from last night’s Ward 4 Dems SBOE Forum and this report by the The DC Line from the Ward 4 Education Alliance Forum held earlier this month.
I’ve been watching the Ward 4 SBOE race closely, and I’ve gotten to know three of the four candidates (Henderson, Lawrence, O’Leary) a little bit. Until now, I haven’t donated to or canvassed for any candidate. But with just a few days left in this very short campaign, it’s time to go all in for whoever you’re supporting.
I’m going to share here who I’m voting for and why. I don’t like to call these endorsements, because too often local politicians try to play act as kingmaker. I’m not delusional enough to believe that I have that kind of influence. Instead, I’m sharing my rationale for my vote in hopes it helps you think through your own, even if you don’t agree with me.
With that said, my vote is going to Frazier O’Leary. Instead of repeating his background or credentials, I encourage you to read this 2017 piece from The Post, titled, “For 47 years, this teacher never gave up on students in a low-scoring D.C. school.”
O’Leary has been endorsed by the Washington Teachers Union and Jews United for Justice, two groups whose positions on DC education issues I share and whose volunteers have already helped position O’Leary’s campaign as the alternative to Green Team-endorsed front-runner Rhonda Henderson.
I’ve met O’Leary three times: at the Shepherd Park Halloween Parade, when he stopped by my November committeeman office hours, and at the Ward 4 Education Alliance Forum earlier this month. Despite his stellar credentials, he is, in many ways, an unlikely candidate for public office in Ward 4. He comes off as a happy warrior who doesn’t campaign with caution. He describes himself as “retired but not tired!” His views on policy don’t seemed to be shaped by donor influence or calculation but by serving on the front line of DC public schools through decades of failed “reform” efforts by business interests and fumbling number-chasers at the Wilson Building.
The critique most often offered of Frazier is that he’s an “old white guy.” That’s objectively true, yet just watch him, and you see O’Leary connect with black students and parents, especially those who came through DCPS themselves, better than most candidates for any office in Ward 4. He isn’t afraid to talk about how race and class are used to dismiss many students’ potential, resulting in kids being pushed through the system under-prepared for the world beyond it.
Most importantly, his platform is on point. He believes in teaching to the diversity of our students’ needs rather than to high-stakes testing. He believes that mayoral control has led to scandal and cover-up and that more power needs to be restored in a democratic SBOE. He would join several recently-elected or re-elected SBOE members who think that measuring student growth and prioritizing parent/student input should be the highest priorities.
His opponents in the race are Ryan Tauriainen, Elani Lawrence, and Rhonda Henderson.
Tauriainen is an award-winning principal and Director of Early Childhood Strategy for Friendship Public Charter Schools. I’ve been impressed by both the quality and content of his responses in forums, though one attendee at the November 27 forum told me they felt like he comes off as a little too self-assured. To me, he seems like a solid candidate and a considerate educator, but he doesn’t appear to have any notable base of electoral support. His campaign finance filings show he’s raised less money than any other candidate, and less than one-sixth of those contributions are from Washington residents. In a different race, that may not matter, but in this one, it’s a decent indicator of whether you’ve done the base-building work necessary to win.
Lawrence is a DC born-and-raised educator with kids in DC charter schools. She brings rare international experience to the race, which informs her focus on engaging English language learners and their families, a growing population in Ward 4. She hits a lot of the marks for me on parent/student engagement, eliminating racial inequity in our schools, and the need to better support teachers. I’ve spoken to and seen her in action several times, and she’s undoubtedly the best listener in the race. She’s also clearly an independent thinker. But when it comes to the state of our schools under so-called “reformers,” she doesn’t seem eager to address the fundamental structural problems that allow inequity and corruption to proliferate.
Henderson, also born and raised in DC, is the front-runner in the race. She has taught and worked in several management roles in DC education, from the Anacostia Elementary Campus to EdOps. I met Rhonda through her role as President of the Manor Park Citizens Association. She is gracious and skillful on the trail and has always gone out of her way to say hello.
But a big red flag went up for for me when she brought in Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd’s office to effectively run her campaign. Todd took the unusual step of endorsing Henderson in private text messages before it was even clear who else was in the race. He has since robocalled for her, been spotted waving signs for her on Georgia Avenue, and his Council staff are at Henderson’s side at nearly every campaign event.
Under our current broken system, it’s up to the Council to hold the Mayor and her appointees accountable on education issues. It’s on the SBOE member to make sure Councilmembers do that. Todd’s record in standing up to Bowser, however, is sorely lacking, and I wonder how Henderson would change that dynamic while being so indebted to the Councilmember.
Todd’s support alone, of course, isn’t a reason to reject a candidate. But it did lead people to do some digging. With Todd’s support, Henderson has raised ~$22,000, far more than O’Leary’s ~$8,000, Lawrence’s ~$5,000, or Tauriainen’s ~$3,000. That’s a lot of money for a Ward 4 SBOE race. When you dive into her campaign finance filings, you see that about 75% of the people maxing out for her are prominent developers or people associated with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political action group of school privatizers largely funded by Wal-Mart heirs.
It’s pretty clear what is going on here. People who see our schools as profit centers and developers who see the Green Team as their defenders also see Henderson as an extension of their political values. I think Henderson has good intentions, but they are overshadowed by a willingness to play a role in this type of anti-democratic, pay-to-play politics.
What worries me most in this race is turnout. Earlier this year, then-Ward 8 Dems Chair Charles Wilson and I co-authored a piece calling for the Council to use this race to test out vote-by-mail. Councilmember Todd’s office, who I’d hoped would support emergency legislation allowing for it, said he wasn’t interested.
That means it’s up to us – you and me – to make sure all of our neighbors are informed about the candidates and know where to vote. The Board of Elections now has all of the information you need on how and where to vote on its website. I’ve linked each candidate’s website above.
Whoever wins on December 4th, I’m grateful to everyone who ran. Because they put their names out there, we have a real, competitive race for SBOE in Ward 4!