Mayoral candidates address issues affecting D.C.'s youngest citizens

Last night's candidate forum at the Channel Inn was attended by dozens of voters who care for and about young children in the District. Many thanks to our partners at the DC Association for the Education of Young Children and Pre-K for All DC for putting on a great event. 

Five candidates were there: Vincent Gray, Michael Green, Leo Alexander, Sulaimon Brown and Ernest Johnson. It was particularly refreshing to finally hear the views of candidates who have more or less been ignored by the mainstream media. Each and every one expressed the importance of quality early care and education programs in our city, but differed on specifics, including how to pay for the programs.

The topic was familiar territory for frontrunner Gray, who has stressed the importance of birth to college education since the beginning of his campaign, and as he would point out, throughout his tenure as chairman of the DC Council. As he has in previous debates, he stressed his role in passing legislation mandating universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the District, and said we have met that target four years ahead of schedule, putting D.C. on track to be the first "state" with universal Pre-K. He also stressed the need to extend the city's focus on early education to better care for infants and toddlers, which he noted has the dual benefit of preparing children for school and also allowing parents to return to work. 

When asked about rising infant mortality in the District, Gray pointed out that when he was director of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s, the rate had declined. He credited an "intense focus on prenatal care," including connecting new parents with resourced parents in their communities to help them get through the first year, as well as outreach to expecting parents. He noted D.C. is second only to Massachusetts in terms of health insurance coverage for children, but that more needs to be done to improve access to quality health services. 

Gray also said the city needs to address the uneven compensation paid to workers in programs run by community-based organizations by boosting reimbursement rates to those centers. 

Gray proposed paying for the improvements in early care and education by cutting back on costs in special education programs. He also supports a local supplement to the federal child care tax credit. 

Read Gray's complete education plan here.

Leo Alexander stressed the need for transparency in all government programs and spending and argued that the next mayor must be able to articulate how he will pay for new programs and services. If elected, he said he would focus on addressing the root causes of poverty, and ensure that adults have access to well-paying jobs. One critical aspect of his plan to attack unemployment would be to make sure parents have access to affordable day care. 

Alexander linked the spike in infant mortality to the closing of DC General Hospital. Meanwhile, he said, the city has been spending its money on things like building a new baseball stadium, street cars and pursuing a convention center hotel. Given the looming deficit, Alexander said he would pursue partnerships with the faith community and nonprofits to finance improvements in early care and education, and said he would have to "look at the books" before he could promise to improve compensation for early childhood caregivers. He offered another proposal to pay for programs for children: Make D.C. a territory and institute a commuter tax.

[For more information, see Leo Alexander's campaign website.]

On the topic of the lack of licensed child care in low-income communities, Michael Green, a former educator himself, proposed giving incentives to child care workers in Wards 3 and 4 to go work in Wards 7 and 8. He also proposed giving teachers at least a 10 percent increase in pay, and said we need to "embrace the teachers we have," as opposed to shooing out veteran teachers. [I could not find a campaign website for Michael Green.]

Sulaimon Brown said his top three priorities as mayor would be unemployment, HIV/AIDS and reducing the high school dropout rate. He also said that he would fire Michelle Rhee. On the other hand, he praised Michelle Obama and said the city should have more programs that help boost healthy nutrition and exercise among children. Recognizing that he is not among the top contenders, he urged his supporters to vote for Gray. [Sulaimon Brown's website.]

Ernest Johnson said he was less concerned about whether Michelle Rhee should keep her job, citing the high turnover of superintendents in DCPS. Instead, he proposed spending $5 billion on workforce programs, including child care, and said he would pay for it by eliminating the street car program, abolishing the appeals board for commercial property taxes to ensure that all landholders pay their due taxes and proposed an additional commercial property tax.

Thanks to all those who came out on Thursday night. But most importantly, go vote on Tuesday, Sept. 14!