The 74 Interview: Councilman Vincent C. Gray on Charters, Pre-K, and Rising Tides in D.C. Schools

Read previous 74 interviews with NFL player turned anti-bullying advocate Wade Smith, United Negro College Fund CEO Michael Lomax, and National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee. The full archive is here.

The names Michelle Rhee, Adrian Fenty, and Kaya Henderson are perhaps those most associated with the upheaval and turnaround of schools in Washington, D.C., over the past decade, but it’s impossible to tell that story without Vincent C. Gray.

While chairman of the city council, Gray sponsored legislation guaranteeing free preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds in the District of Columbia. The city, which also functions in many ways as a state, now has the highest proportion of young children in state-funded early learning in the country.

(The 74: Washington, D.C. — The Pre-K Capital Where Nearly All 4-Year-Olds (and Most 3-Year-Olds!) Go to School)

In 2010, Gray famously beat then-incumbent mayor Fenty, who with Rhee implemented huge changes in D.C.’s schools. The race was framed as Gray, defender of longtime D.C. residents and the status quo, versus Fenty, whose platform of big changes, like mayoral control of schools, was seen as favoring the young people moving to the city at the expense of longtime residents.

But Gray, who had supported the move to mayoral control as chairman of the city council, continued the education reform work, appointing Henderson, a top Rhee deputy, as chancellor.

“There was no reasonable conclusion that could be reached, that the governance approach [that was in place before mayoral control] was likely to make any major changes for children in the District of Columbia,” he said.

After Gray’s victory, several of his aides pleaded guilty in connection with a wide-ranging investigation into campaign finance improprieties, a scandal that overshadowed much of his tenure as mayor. Gray always asserted his innocence, and the investigation closed in 2015 without charges being filed against him, but he lost the 2014 mayoral primary to now-Mayor Muriel Bowser. He beat an incumbent to regain his seat on the city council in 2016, and said he hasn’t ruled out a challenge to Bowser next year.

Gray spoke with The 74 in his office in D.C.’s John Wilson Building in mid-August. You can also see photos and audio portions of this interview on The 74’s multimedia site published in conjunction with David Osborne’s new book, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What would you say are your biggest accomplishments in education when you were on the council and then when you were mayor?

Gray: Well, I think that they’re really inextricably tied. I think the biggest accomplishment, to me anyway, is something that I think will go on for many, many years, and that is establishing the universality of early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds in the city. I did the legislation that created a commitment to universal pre-kindergarten. That law was approved, I guess in ’08 or ’09, right around that era. Then where I worked especially hard as mayor to make sure it was effectively implemented.

I really don’t have any reservations about saying I think we have the most effective — the most available, let’s put it that way — pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds in the District of Columbia by comparison to any other jurisdiction in America.

Could you talk a little bit about mayoral control of the schools and Chancellor Henderson, and the importance you felt about keeping those reforms in place when you took over from Mayor Fenty?

I was a big supporter of education reform as manifested in that way, and I want to clarify why I put it that way, as manifested under the mayoral control. I helped to move the council in the direction of voting for this because under Mayor [Anthony] Williams [D.C.’s mayor from 1999 to 2007], he had tried the same thing and it was voted down by the council … I really felt that we were at a point where there was no reasonable conclusion that could be reached, that the governance approach that then was extant was likely to make any major changes for children in the District of Columbia. I was happy to support it, happy to work with its implementation.

There certainly were some rough spots along the way …

Again, I was committed to it from the very beginning. I not only voted for it, I moved to help the council …We had a 9-to-2 vote, which was overwhelming. [There were two vacancies on D.C.’s 13-member city council at that point.] The only thing I was disappointed in, I was hoping we’d get an 11-to-0 vote because I thought that would be overwhelmingly dispositive in terms of the sentiments of the legislative body in the city about the need to move in that direction.

Of course, having had such a commitment to education reform as manifested in that way, I wanted to see those reforms continue when I became mayor because I was so committed to them myself. … I moved in the direction of appointing [Henderson] because of her history with the city, her history with education in the public sense in the District of Columbia, and her involvement with education reform as it was being practiced and implemented during that time.

How would you describe the schools in D.C. 10 years ago versus today versus how you hope they’ll look in 10 years?

I think we made major change, and I want to underscore too that simply the governance changes in the D.C. public school system are only a part of the picture. I think the advent, the creation of charter schools in the District of Columbia, is a major form of reform in the District of Columbia. That goes back to the late ’90s, when there was a federal law passed to give the authority to be able to create charter schools … It didn’t have to be the federal government that did that. We would have gotten there ourselves, I’m absolutely certain of that.

I think we have to recognize that a lot of the reform and the achievements thereof also came as a function of the charters in the District of Columbia. They now are probably 20-years-old-plus in the District of Columbia. I think we’re light-years from where we were in 1996. I think we’re light-years from where we were in 2007. We will continue to make gains, in my opinion.

We have an enormous achievement gap, as many big cities do. Unfortunately, you look at it and it’s socioeconomically based, it’s racially based in the District of Columbia, but I think those gaps will continue to close …

I think the lessons that should be learned from the charters is the extent to which we’ve given the autonomy and authority to those schools to be able to function. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. I mean, there certainly are requirements that you perform, that the children demonstrate that they’re making progress. I commend the charters on having put in place an evaluation system. The performance management framework that’s been put in place that I think does a good job of helping to measure the effectiveness of each one of those schools …

I have a piece of legislation now too that I’m working on that I introduced a couple of months ago, three months ago. It’s a bill that focuses on infants and toddlers because I look at this as kind of three pieces. Having good prenatal care is the beginning of this effort. I worked hard as a director of the Department of Human Services to be able to improve outcomes for children around infant mortality … [D.C.’s infant mortality rate dropped from 13.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2005 to 7.6 per 1,000 in 2014, which was still above the national average of 6 per 1,000 that same year.]

The prenatal care work is hugely important. The other end of that spectrum, if we can call it that, is what we do with the 3- and 4-year-olds. We just talked about that in terms of the work that we’re doing with early childhood education.

The middle piece is the infant and toddlers piece. It isn’t that we don’t have programs — we’ve had programs of one kind or another for a very long time in the city. We just have not had a systematic approach that says, ‘Here’s what we’re aiming to do with very young children. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s how we’re going to involve families.’ We want families to feel comfortable being able to take their child to an infant and toddler program and that they will be safe all day and they will learn, that they will have a healthy developmental experience for each one of them, which we think is going on now and will be expanded by the infant and toddler programs that would be enabled by the legislation that I have [proposed] …

We’ve got growing numbers of very young children in the city because the birth rate is growing. We ought to do everything we possibly can to say that there is a place for young children in our developmental and educational systems.

One of the things that we didn’t do, as I’m sure you know, is that we didn’t mandate legislatively or otherwise that children who are 3 and 4 have to go to school. They’re not required to, and there are a couple of reasons for that: One, I felt we could convince parents that this was a good thing for their children. Secondly, just from a statutory perspective, should the day come, and hopefully it won’t, when hard times fall upon the city again and there’s shrinking resources, if you create a mandate that every child who is 3 has to be in school, that then would put the city in a position of being vulnerable to litigation because it isn’t serving every one of those children.

That wasn’t the principal reason for it. The principal reason for it was I believed that we were creating an environment in which parents would want to see their children have the best opportunity to succeed and that we wouldn’t have to mandate that they send their 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds to school, that they would do it because it was the right thing to do for their children.

Is that just a center-based program or is there a home visiting component to it?

Both … Home visiting is very much an important part of that, and that’s why, for example, our health care professionals will have such a continually growing role in that regard. Nurses, for example, who make visitations to homes who can work not only with the children but also work with the parents to be able to care for those children. I look at some of the very youngest of our children in the city and see that they may be in single-parent homes where moms may be the caregiver, where they may not even be 21 years of age themselves, they may be 16, 17, 18 years old, and what we can do to equip them to be able to do an even more effective job with their children.

I have not run into a parent yet who didn’t want something better for their children. The problem is, of course, in many instances they don’t know how to do it, and that’s one of our jobs, to be able to help them become more effective, to carry out a commitment which I think virtually every one of them has. Talking about universality, I think there’s a universal commitment on the part of our parents. Commitment is one thing, but having the characteristics and qualities and skill set to be able to effectuate that, it’s a whole another issue.

Taking it back to the older kids a little bit, you’ve been quoted as saying, “I honestly think that one of the principal reasons for the improvement we’re seeing in the schools is the feeling that if you don’t get better, you’re going out of business.” Could you talk a little bit about sort of the charters and the competition?

Absolutely. I think having created the competitive environment that we have with the charters has sent the message that there’s no entitlement to be able to educate our children. You look at the reduction in the numbers of traditional public schools in the city, parents voting with their feet. Fifteen, 20 years ago, there was virtually no charter movement, and then it’s grown astronomically in the last several years. I’m a huge supporter of the charter movement because I think it creates an environment of competition …

It creates flexibility for the educators themselves in ways that they don’t characteristically have, certainly a number of years ago they didn’t characteristically have in the traditional public education system. Look at the sheer numbers. Again, we’ve gone from, again, back in 1996 virtually no charter schools, then in the last 10 years the numbers have grown exponentially in the charter system. The charters now serve about 44, 45 percent of the children in public education in the District of Columbia. Some of that is because parents have chosen never to send their children to traditional public education or they move them from traditional public education to a charter school because they felt like they would have a better chance of having a quality education. Frankly, I think a lot of parents feel that their children are safer. They look at charter schools as almost like private schools and feel that their children will be safer there.

The reality is that enrollment is growing in the District of Columbia. I think we’re up to close to 90,000 children in the charters plus traditional public schools at this stage, which is very significant growth in the last seven, eight, 10 years. In traditional public education, we had come to the point where we were down to the high 40 [thousands] and even when you added in the charter numbers seven, eight years ago, it only got us up to about 65, 70,000. If you look at where we are now, all boats are rising, and it’s because, I think, people have an increasing level of confidence in public education, and a big part of that is because the charter schools have played such an important role in growing public education here in the District of Columbia.

The day is over when people can assume just because you are the public school down the street that you will exist no matter how well you do or you don’t perform. That day is over, it’s done, and that’s good for our children and that’s good for our families.

You mentioned how high the percentage of kids here who go to charters is — one of the highest in the country. Do you think it’s hit a saturation point? Is there a saturation point?

I don’t think there is one. I think there is such a thing as a saturation point. You’d only hit it because, let’s say, when comparing charters to the traditionals, it’s because the traditional public education schools have gotten better and people are choosing to keep their kids there. We’ve got improvements that we’ve got to make. Middle schools in the District of Columbia continue to need improvement. The charters have basically figured out how to fill the gaps that exist and the needs that exist. You look at some of the charter expansions in the recent past, it’s been in substantial part through the middle schools. The charters are growing on the east end of the District of Columbia, in Ward Seven and Ward Eight. We know that our children have historically failed in those areas when you start to talk about the achievement gap. The achievement gap is widest in those areas that are on the east end of the District of Columbia.

No, I don’t think there’s going to be a saturation point, and if there is a saturation point it would be one where we can all stand up and celebrate and say, ‘All of our kids are doing well. There is no more achievement gap, that kids are accomplishing in ways that we had hoped that they would be. Every child is graduating. The dropout rates have been eliminated.’ We’re not at that point yet, so we can talk about the reality of a saturation point when we hit those numbers.

How would you rate Mayor Bowser’s handling of the schools so far?

Well, very different than mine. I was very much of a hands-on mayor because I was very involved in early childhood education. When education reform in the traditional public schools was approved by the mayor and the council, one of the features in there was that the mayor would meet on a regular basis with the chancellor. I accepted that as it was stated and that there is an expectation that I will be involved with the chancellor. It doesn’t mean I’m going to try to dictate education policy or philosophy, but it means that the chancellor, who was running, continues to run the traditional public schools, will have an expectation of a direct relationship with the mayor, who is designated to be able to be the governing authority for schools.

I took that very seriously. I continue to take that very seriously. I don’t believe it’s something that should be delegated down to the deputy mayor for education. I think the deputy mayor for education has a very important role, but the mayor’s role, there is no substitute for that. It sends a powerful message to the city also that the principal city governing authority is involved in the continued growth, development, assessment, improvement of public education in the city. I took it seriously then, and I take it seriously now.

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