“…it was the worst of times…it was the age of foolishness…it was the epoch of incredulity…it was the season of Darkness…it was the winter of despair…” (Charles Dickens, opening excerpt, A Tale of Two Cities)
Forgive me for taking Dickens out of context — but Washington, D.C., feels like the ultimate Dickensian nightmare these days. One side of the city reels from an ethical scandal while the other side of the city revels in misconduct.
On one side of the city, a leader has rightfully lost his job because of unethical behavior in a matter that was a clumsy attempt to do something right for a child.
At the other side of the city, a leader flouts every known rule of ethical conduct, spewing lies with abandon and engaging in the most appalling forms of self-dealing while showing only contempt for anyone who might criticize him.
On the local side of the city known as D.C., Antwan Wilson definitely had to step down as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools as a result of his misguided attempt to by-pass the school lottery system to gain a favorable placement for his daughter. He knew the rules — he wrote them in response to a similar case that occurred when Kaya Henderson was chancellor. His motivation can hardly be termed corrupt — he was trying to solve a problem for his daughter who was not adjusting well to her first school placement. We can feel compassion and even sorrow for Mr. Wilson’s dilemma. Nonetheless, as chancellor he was wrong to try to bend the rules to give his daughter favorable treatment, and now he has paid a heavy price in losing a job he wanted so very much. My heart goes out to him, but my head tells me he absolutely could not remain in office.
On the federal side of the city known a Washington, Donald Trump remains president of the United States despite forms of behavior that would terminate any normal person’s employment and that raise serious issues of self-dealing and personal enrichment at the expense of the taxpayers. Conflicts of interest abound. He spends excessive amounts of time at his own properties which generates a great deal of income for those properties, and his family members continue to tend to his global business interests even as they cross lines between being business partners and political advisors. His casual acquaintance with truth is a global scandal; his expressions of contempt for certain nations and peoples betray our national values. He flat out lied about being interested in having a solution for Dreamers. He fails to mount any serious response to Russian efforts to undermine our democracy and he routinely attacks judges, the FBI the special counsel and other officials whose jobs require them to raise questions and investigate his actions. He takes pride in mocking conventional presidential rules of conduct. He is stripping the presidency of honor and respect. But for now he remains in office apparently unrepentant and full of his own righteous glee at getting away with it.
On the local side of the city we call D.C., the children urgently need improved schools and better educational opportunities to move out of the poverty and despair that afflicts the eastern half of the city even now. When the grown ups fail, the children suffer.
On the federal side of the city we call Washington, there are people who make rules for the other side, the D.C. side, who would not be able to find their way to Alabama Avenue on their own, and who probably would not go there anyway even with a car and driver. Those people who make the rules sit high on Capitol Hill where, if they look east and southeast, they can gaze across the river at lovely highlands, but, let’s face it, they have no idea what “east of the river” means in real life in D.C.
On the local side of the city known as D.C., before the chancellor had to resign in the aftermath of a totally incomprehensible ethical error, we were already reeling from the news of a different kind of scandal with the D.C. Public Schools involving a pervasive breakdown in standards for graduation. The slow-motion avalanche of diplomas awarded to students who skipped large amounts of class time, or who did not complete academic requirements, occurred over a series of years and appears to be, at least in some part, a perverse response to efforts to improve the schools by pressuring teachers and principals to improve graduation rates, leading to a culture of passing everyone despite the evidence of scant actual learning for too many students. This, too, was a scandal of ethical failure.
On the federal side of the city of Washington, President Trump sent a budget proposal to Capitol Hill that, among many other injustices, eliminates the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program. There’s a certain “let them eat cake” disdain in this callous Trump proposal to pull the rug out from under D.C. students who need so much support to go to college, as if the denizens of the White House and Congress, high on their perches overlooking the poor quadrants of the city, care nothing for the harm that could be done to the students who already have so many dashed hopes. The last thing the children of D.C, need right now is further discouragement of their educational ambitions.
On the local side of the city, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mounted a campaign to make sure D.C. TAG gets funded anyway, and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (who has no vote in Congress but does heroic advocacy anyway for the disenfranchised citizens of the nation’s last colony) is working in overdrive to get Congress to reject the Trump proposal and to save D.C TAG. Their jobs — and mine and all of us who are part of the advocacy effort — has become that much harder today with the demise of Chancellor Wilson.
Working in education on the local side of the city, I had very high hopes for Antwan Wilson’s leadership, and my disappointment and frustration today run high. I was a co-chair of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee working with Mayor Bowser in 2016 when we were asked to develop qualities and characteristics for the new chancellor, succeeding Kaya Henderson. Our panel of about 17 citizens did a conscientious and thorough job, and presented a thoughtful report after spending weeks listening to stakeholders in the city.
We worked closely with Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, a graduate of Trinity’s master’s program in Educational Administration. Ms. Niles seemed to be a solid leader and manager, attentive to the rules. So it was an especially deep disappointment to learn that she facilitated the improper transfer of Mr. Wilson’s child from Ellington to Wilson High School, bypassing the neighborhood school of Dunbar where she would have been assigned otherwise. Ms. Niles should have known better, and Mayor Bowser correctly and immediately fired her last Friday for this very serious breach of the ethical rules.
On the federal side of Washington, each day brings news of yet another ethical scandal — first class travel for the EPA secretary so as to avoid unpleasant contact with the peasants in steerage, er, economy class; Jared Kushner’s inability after dozens of tries to get his disclosure forms straight; rumors and outright evidence of tolerance of sexual harassment and even assault by high ranking officials; the list goes on and on.
I am disappointed but have no quarrel with the clear urgency of separating the chancellor from his position of authority over the schools. A leader needs a strong reputation for honesty and integrity, and once that reputation is gone, it’s hard to reclaim. Across nearly three decades as an educational leader, I have constantly reinforced this message for myself and my colleagues: take nothing for yourself. Nothing. Trust is everything and we must teach our pupils by our own example.
What is outrageous is that in one part of this troubled city a man loses his job for one serious ethical lapse, but in another part of the city a man keeps a far more powerful and consequential job despite the vast mountains of evidence of ethical misconduct.
The tale of two cities — D.C and Washington — is a tale of double standards writ large. One part of the city did the right thing. Will the other part of the city ever find its conscience again? ’twill be a far, far better thing when it finally does… and when we can restore the idea of ethical conduct to its rightful place as the first and most urgent quality for all public leaders in all places to exemplify.