Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser just vetoed her first bill in the three years she has served as mayor of the nation’s capital.
Washington, D.C.’s public schools are under mayoral control. Earlier this year, a scandal was exposed in which the school district—under pressure to show rapid improvement—had been allowing thousands of students who had been missing weeks of school to graduate. Then last month, the City Council passed an emergency law to allow some of this year’s high school seniors who have missed more than six weeks of class—unexcused—to receive their diplomas.
Last week, Mayor Bowser vetoed the emergency law which applied to approximately 26 of this year’s high school seniors— as the District continues to address a major graduation crisis. The new law would have permitted the students to graduate from D.C. high schools in August, despite their poor school attendance.
In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser explains: “The Chancellor has worked diligently over the past several months to ensure that our students are attending school… D.C. Public Schools has invested substantial time and resources to ensure that all students who are off track have pathways to graduation or promotion through summer school, credit recovery, or competency-based courses at its Opportunity Academies. Ultimately, we believe that mastering the content through one of those alternatives will set students up for long-term success in college or career, and this legislation undercuts individualized graduation plans created for each student.”
Writing for the Washington Post, Fenit Nirappil explains the significance of the legislation Bowser just vetoed: “The measure, passed by the D.C. Council on a 12-to-1 vote last month, came as the school system started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies following a graduation scandal. Lawmakers said it was unfair to punish students by changing the rules during the school year. The legislation applied only to seniors who satisfied all other academic requirements to graduate. The measure also would have allowed students in lower grades with significant numbers of absences to advance to the next grade. At the time the measure passed, it was believed 26 seniors would be affected by the legislation… Leaders of the District’s public schools had sharply criticized the emergency reprieve.”
During the past decade, there has been enormous pressure on school principals and teachers to demonstrate rapid school improvement. District leaders have sought to make Washington, D.C.’s public schools appear to be a national model. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores.
More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what. They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising its graduation rate. Last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes. Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated.
The new emergency rules passed by the City Council in June—the rules Mayor Bowser just vetoed—appeared to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty. In June, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.”
In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser reinforces her intention to end the lax attendance policies that have plagued the District’s public schools. But at the same time, she reinforces the need for the school district to maintain consistent requirements for students. While school leaders have created individualized assistance for students with personal challenges, Bowser declares that students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students need to complete a full academic program.