By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO

Education was the central issue at the candidate forum on June 5 sponsored by the Coalition for D.C. Public Schools and Communities. The event, moderated by freelance journalist Sarah Stodder, pitted current council Chairman Phil Mendelson, against Ed Lazere, former executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. There was also a second panel for the at-large council candidates that included incumbent Anita Bonds and political newcomers Marcus Goodwin and Jeremiah Lowery.

The D.C. council chairman candidates explored how they’d tackle obstacles preventing some children, especially those from impoverished Wards 7 and 8, from attending school.  Both panels addressed larger issues, like their vision for school reform in the wake of a persistent achievement gap and a D.C. Public Schools graduation scandal that rocked the District.

Jeremiah Lowery, At-large City Council candidate, says the District should bring back the school board.

Mendelson touted funding the Office of Victim Services with millions of dollars to send community-based organizations to work with students, their families, and principals to uncover why these students have 10 absences or more and to help get them back in the classroom.

In some cases, he said, the oldest child in the family stayed home to look after younger siblings. Mendelson cited a case where a family couldn’t do laundry and kept the child home from school instead of sending the student to school in dirty clothes.

“We know what the different reasons are, but we do need to identify them on an individual basis and then through the CBO-like collaborative, bring the appropriate resources to help . . . get them back into school,” Mendelson said.

Lazere said there are multiple stressors affecting families that keep kids from going to school, like housing instability, rising Metro fares, poor neighborhood schools and bus route cuts. He suggested the city invest in housing stability so low-income families don’t get pushed out, and in quality neighborhood schools so local children have good educational options close by and don’t have to travel across the city for school. D.C. should also invest more money in Metro so that it thinks twice about raising fares or cutting crucial bus lines that Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents rely on.

Since D.C. students ride Metro for free, parents of elementary school students should get to ride for free, so they can take their kids to school and reduce truancy, Lazere added. “If you’re a second grader, you’re not going to ride a Metro bus by yourself,” he said.

Revelations about a citywide graduation scandal showed more than 900 students – about a third of DCPS’s graduates last year – shouldn’t have gotten their diplomas because of truancy and other problems. This shocked the city and made officials question the school reform agenda started in 2007 after then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the schools.

The scandal “ripped the veil off the truth in terms of what’s really going on with our schools,” Mendelson said.

The pressure of the high-stakes prompted some school leaders to falsify their graduation figures, Lazere said, and the failure of the council and of Mendelson was that they didn’t analyze whether those traditional metrics were the right way to reform DCPS. “Education reform in Washington, D.C. has failed,” Jeremiah Lowery, an at-large council candidate said.

“The council can, in fact, play a strong counterweight to the mayor to make sure that school reform is, in fact, focusing on the right things and heading in the right direction,” Lazere said.

Lowery demanded more transparency from DCPS and the charter schools, especially when it comes to data.  If elected, he’d push for an empowered school board.

Now that the media has uncovered the “ugly” in the school system, the reform process can begin anew and should include adult education and literacy, Anita Bonds said. “More than 30 percent of our adults are not able to read . . . and so we really have that as a byproduct of our school system and we have to work on that in order to make our families whole throughout the city,” Bonds said.

Marcus Goodwin said mayoral control has put the school system on the “right path” to accountability and having a school board isn’t the answer. He pushed a multi-faceted approach- investing in after school tutors and mentors to help students get beyond grade level in critical subjects, investing in summer programming to ensure students remain at proficient levels in their subjects, bringing in university-level thinkers to help Washington move beyond its achievement gap and revive vocational education for high school students.

“The economic realities for many people in this city who look like me is that they can’t take four years off and go live the college life,” Goodwin said. “They need to help support their families when they turn 18 and they need to be given the opportunity to be trained to learn how to be an HVAC technician, an electrician, a plumber.”

The election is June 19.