Washington, D.C.’s mayor just may have sabotaged his own re-election.
Even among the array of big-city mayors staking their political aspirations (and legacies) on reforming woeful public school districts, Adrian Fenty stands out for having bet more of his future on such reforms than anyone else. The Washington, D.C., mayor’s takeover of D.C. Public Schools — and its (so-far successful) overhaul effort by controversial reform stalwart Michelle Rhee — remains his biggest success in a first term renowned for spats with the clown college known as the city council and incidents of alleged cronyism.
The focus on improving the school system — once called the Superfund site of American public education — has also been the only reason why Fenty has remained a shoo-in for a second term. Unlike the old-school black Democrats, civil servant union members, hard-core left-leaners, and aging civil rights leaders that Fenty has rubbed the wrong way, the motley crew of inside-the-Beltway policy wonks, Teach For America alumni and young urbanites who make up part of the District’s — and America’s — school reform movement have been among his biggest supporters.
But Fenty may have doomed his own chances for re-election and his aspirations for higher office — by standing up the very school reformers otherwise loyal to his cause.
On Monday, Fenty was supposed to debate his foremost rival, D.C. City Council President Vincent Gray, at something called “The Great Education Debate.” But the night before the debate, the mayor suddenly pulled out. Why? His campaign told the organizer that he “couldn’t make it work.” This left Gray as the only candidate to attend the event, which was re-named “The Great Education Forum.”
The very fact that Fenty pulled out of a debate on the very issue on which he has staked his political future is amazing enough. But then, it really isn’t. As with so much of Fenty’s efforts, he has managed to anger the very people he should be winning over.
Thanks to Rhee, Fenty has succeeded in reversing the decades-long slide into the academic and systemic abyss. The biggest success came in April, when Fenty and Rhee successfully forced the district’s American Federation of Teachers local to accept a new contract that ends such destructive practices as reverse seniority — or “last hired-first fired” — layoffs, which often lead to teachers (especially the young, talented performers Rhee has brought in during her tenure) being laid off without regard to the quality of their work. Although the rest of the contract isn’t all that path-breaking, it also forced the union to accept some of the very teacher quality reforms Rhee has advocated, including the use of student test data in teacher performance evaluations.
But Rhee’s battles with the union, along with a string of school closings, sparring with the city council, and her otherwise Churchillian approach to reform, haven’t made Fenty all that popular. One of her slickest moves — the layoff of 266 teachers (including many longtime instructors) amid a budget cut — remains controversial, especially after it was alleged that Rhee overstated the degree to which the district needed to tighten its belt.
It was this move (along with his own ambitions and promises of support from the District’s old-school clique) that likely prompted Gray — who backed Fenty’s takeover of the school district three years ago — to run against the mayor. Given Gray’s successful wooing of such local education powerhouses as D.C. State Board of Education member Lisa Raymond, his strong backing of the city’s charter school movement, and the fact that the debate was to be moderated by Washington Post columnist Colbert King (whose fondness for Fenty has dissipated amid the mayor’s fumbling of the city’s juvenile justice system), Fenty faces a threat on his own turf. Which is likely why Fenty skipped the debate altogether.
BUT IN SKIPPING THE APPEARANCE, Fenty did more than just give the education reform spotlight to his foe. He may have lost the votes of many of the very school reformers he has cultivated for most of his political career.
You see, the organizer of the event is a group called the Young Education Professionals of D.C., a group whose membership includes up-and-comers at such leading lights of the school reform movement as the Education Trust, the think tank of choice for left-leaners within the movement. How influential is YEP-DC? It managed to stir up enough RSVP interest in the debate to fill up the Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center auditorium a week before Fenty canceled — a rare feat in a city where local politics isn’t exactly the main attraction. (In the interest of full disclosure, and to avoid the kind of ridiculous charges of conspiracy that recently befell a colleague, the author is on YEP-DC’s mailing list and has attended several of its events.)
So when Fenty pulled out, the YEP-DC organizers put together their own campaign — this time, to get the mayor to change his mind and show up. They managed to spur YEP-DC members to flood Fenty’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Fenty being Fenty, he didn’t relent one bit. But the group managed to gain even more notice for the event. Declared the Post’s King: “The whole idea [of the debate] was to help voters gain a better understanding of the thinking of both candidates on education…. Fenty, for reasons he will have to explain, denied voters that opportunity.”
Considering all the questions Fenty is facing these days on all fronts, he could end up being denied the opportunity of a second term.
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H/T to National Review Online