- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Washington’s mayoral candidates clashed over proposals to improve the city’s public schools in their first general-election debate, with the Democratic nominee characterizing her independent challenger as a loose cannon whose approach would lead to “ping-pongs in leadership.”

Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser has pledged to speed up school reform in the District of Columbia, where hundreds of teachers have been fired for poor performance under an evaluation system installed by the previous chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Bowser has pledged to retain Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is less politically polarizing than Rhee but has maintained and fine-tuned her policies. The chancellor reports solely to the mayor.

Under Rhee and Henderson, test scores have improved both on the District’s own standardized tests and on the federally administered “nation’s report card,” but huge gaps persist along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Independent mayoral candidate David Catania, who chairs the D.C. Council’s education committee, has pushed through ambitious legislation aimed at reducing those inequities and improving special education. He said during Thursday’s debate at American University that Bowser’s record on education consists of little more than empty platitudes.

Catania said he would decide whether to retain Henderson after the election, and Bowser said his lack of commitment to the chancellor should give parents pause. She also said voters are concerned he would push untested ideas.

“The education team should be running our schools,” Bowser said. “We have to have a strong chancellor with a big vision. That’s why I’m supporting moving forward with our schools, not taking a chance on ping-pongs in leadership.”

Bowser, like Catania a D.C. Council member, defeated Mayor Vincent Gray in the April Democratic primary. The Democratic nominee has gone on to win every general election since District residents were granted self-rule 40 years ago. A poll released Wednesday by The Washington Post poll showed Bowser leading Catania by 17 percentage points. Another independent, Carol Schwartz, was 27 points behind Bowser.

The exchanges over education were among the testiest, with Bowser and Catania talking over each other and presenting a clear policy contrast. On other issues, the candidates found more common ground.

Bowser and Catania both support building a stadium for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, but neither wants to swap a building on valuable city-owned land as part of a deal. Both are willing to explore seeking the 2024 Olympics for Washington. Both applauded the Gray administration for crafting legislation that would allow residents to carry concealed firearms only if they show a specific reason for needing protection.

They also agreed the city has a homelessness crisis, although Catania said Bowser should have done more to address it from her perch as chair of the council’s economic development committee.

Although Catania and Schwartz are both former Republicans - Schwartz left the party late last year - neither strays far from the District’s liberal orthodoxy. Catania claimed to have “the most progressive record on this stage,” pointing to his work to combat the District’s HIV epidemic, legalize gay marriage and turn around a struggling public hospital.

The small auditorium was packed largely with the candidates’ core supporters, and the debate, only available for general public viewing via an online stream, featured no major gaffes.

Schwartz, a former council member who lost her seat in 2008 and has run for mayor five times, provided moments of levity while also taking different views on some issues. She opposes bringing the Olympics to Washington, and she criticized her opponents for continuing to take campaign contributions from affiliated limited-liability corporations, a loophole that will be closed next year. Schwartz has refused such money.

“Those loopholes are still wide open, and they’re both driving their cars through those loopholes,” she said. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.”


Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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