Former DCPS Chancellor undermined school lottery system*


Ben Korn

The last few weeks have been tough for Mayor Muriel Bowser. She is facing an onslaught of criticism about her allocation of money, or lack thereof, to DC Public Schools. And in these past weeks, a controversy implicating some of her top aides has been brought to surface. The issue at hand: the District of Columbia School’s Lottery System. This system was implemented to help more students get placed in high-performing schools, regardless of where they live. Each year more than 20,000 students apply for schools outside their designated boundary. To many parents, the DC Lottery System is viewed as the only way to get their child into one of the select-few high performing schools in the District. Lafayette Elementary, Murch Elementary, Stoddert Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, and Woodrow Wilson High School are often parents’ top picks. For the 2016-2017 school year, 1,067 students applied to Wilson through the lottery process and only 20 students were given a spot, .018 percent. The rest were denied.

The controversy began with a report from the DC Inspector General, who said that the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Kaya Henderson, gave preferential treatment to friends and city officials in the lottery system. And one case hits especially close to home. Throughout three pages of the bruising 31 page report, one District of Columbia Principal, labeled “District Official C”s case was investigated. This unnamed school principal, which the report suggests, was new to the school system had applied to School Without Walls for their son. During the lottery process, the principal decided that if at all possible, they would rather have their son attend Wilson. The official cited easier transportation, a more diverse student population, and more extra-curriculars as motives for the switch. School Official C was very clear in their communication with the Chancellor that she was not attempting to game the system, but only asking the Chancellor to take a look at the application and help out with the transition process. The official was completely content with the assigned school and only wanted to explore the possibility. Because of Wilson’s extreme selectivity, the student was placed on Wilson’s waitlist at #204, according to the Inspector General’s Report.  When the traditional lottery process closed, the student was ranked at #187. Unbeknownst to lottery officials, Chancellor Henderson had stepped in. In emails released by the report, Henderson had granted the enrollment request.

In an interview with The Beacon, Principal Kimberly Martin was very candid that she was, in fact, the District Official labeled in the report. Because she was new to the system, she was under the impression that the Chancellor’s selection “was part of the process.” At the time of the 2015 lottery, Martin said she had the ability to make a “principal’s selection,” where principals are able to select students from the lottery for admission to their schools. Principal Martin decided not to use that authority. Because she believed that by going through the Chancellor she was “following the correct process. Doing things the right way.”

In another case, Chancellor Henderson helped DC Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden apply for schools. Snowden wanted to send her son to Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan, a school that she was not in-boundary for. Despite a waiting list of almost 1,302 students, Chancellor Henderson was able to help Snowden get one of the only 93 spots available through the lottery system. The Inspector General mentioned a total of seven cases where the Chancellor intervened. Many of the parents were high ranking city officials or friends.

Not all cases were granted. In one case, a DCPS teacher, labeled District Official E, asked if Chancellor Henderson could also help her child get into the extremely selective Capitol Hill Montessori School @ Logan. Chancellor Henderson declined the request and said in an email, “Is there some reason that I don’t know about that makes you think I should intervene in this particular case, but not in any other cases of teachers or parents who don’t get the result they want in the lottery? How would I explain to other teachers or to anyone why [District Official E’s] child deserves a spot over any other parent who followed the rules that we all agreed on for enrollment in a limited number of seats? What am I missing here?”

The Chancellor is in fact allowed to transfer a student from one school to another in extreme situations, but many critics have pointed out that these specific interventions undermine the credibility of the lottery system.

*This article appeared in the May/June/2017 issue