School reformers across the nation found themselves in mourning this week after Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s bid for a second term went down in stunning defeat. Four years after sweeping aside a political establishment that long-tolerated rampant crime and systemic academic failure in its schools, the lawyer and former city councilman lost the Democratic primary in the nation’s capital to technocrat Vincent Gray, whose only notable achievement in his long career in politics was overseeing the clown college known as the city council.
Fenty’s takeover and overhaul of D.C.’s woeful public school system – long renowned as the Superfund Site of public education (before Detroit took that unenviable position) — won him acclaim from his fellow centrist Democrats in the school reform movement, as did the work of Michelle Rhee in battling the American Federation of Teachers affiliate that long controlled the district. But the rest of his tenure was filled with spats with the city council, incidents of alleged cronyism, a high-profile snub of Dorothy Height, a doyenne of the city’s black political elite, and, by June, a high-profile jailbreak from the city’s juvenile detention center that left whatever reputation he still had as an effective city manager in tatters. Fenty even managed to bruise the egos of the very school reformers who were keeping his campaign afloat by failing to appear at a debate sponsored by the Young Education Professionals of D.C.
By Tuesday, as Fenty was pulling defeat from the jaws of what was once near-certain victory, his supporters were reduced to asking D.C. voters to keep him in office in spite of his jerk reputation. Oddly enough, if not for the presence of Rhee — who has far more fans than Fenty despite her own Churchillian persona and sharp-elbowed approach to dealing with teachers unions — he would have likely lost by an even greater margin.
Fenty’s downfall flips on its head the long-dominant argument that mayors should avoid school reform because of the political danger of jousting with teachers unions and their cadre of supporters. But the political success of reform-minded mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Chicago’s Richard Daley (who is leaving after two decades in office), and former Milwaukee mayor (and school voucher pioneer) John Norquist shows that, if anything, big-city residents aren’t all that fond of teachers unions or dropout factories. That President Barack Obama’s school reform efforts remain popular on the national level (even as the rest of his agenda is being rejected) is another sign school reform is sensible, politically and otherwise.
At the same time, Fenty’s loss offers a new reason for why school reformers shouldn’t rely on mayor-led reform. Mayors can succeed in continuing reforms only if they master the other aspects of their job: Keeping crime low; attending to quality of life issues; efficiently managing city government; and artfully keeping opponents (and sometimes, even allies) divided or placated. Fail in any of these areas (let alone all of them, as in Fenty’s case) and the mayor may not have much time to overhaul school districts — or anything else.
This should have been particularly clear to school reformers three years ago, when another one of their municipal darlings, Bart Peterson, lost what should have been a cakewalk re-election as Indianapolis mayor to Greg Ballard, who had raised just $300,000 and had little support from the city’s Republican Party establishment. Peterson won acclaim for being the first mayor in America to authorize charter schools. His efforts were recognized by such outfits as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which awarded him its Innovations in Government Award.
But Peterson also presided over rising crime and vandalism, growing vagrancy, and tax increases related to construction of a new $720 million stadium for the Circle City’s NFL franchise. Residents, displeased that Indianapolis was getting mired in the same malaise that has long made Detroit an unlivable slum, showed him the door. Luckily for reformers (and for the city’s kids), Peterson’s effort lives on thanks to his successor’s hands-off approach, the pluck of charter school operators and Indianapolis’ status as Indiana’s capital city (which guarantees attention from the state’s reform-minded governor and school superintendent).
Fenty’s efforts aren’t likely to experience such a nice fate. Gray, who initially backed Fenty’s reform effort while on the city council, has squabbled with Rhee over such matters as the layoff of 266 teachers (including many longtime instructors), and the dismissal of another 200 or so laggard teachers in July. Given his history with Rhee — and his need to placate supporters such as the AFT (which backed his campaign with a $1 million ad campaign) — Gray is likely to do as much as he can to force Rhee to quit (if not fire her outright). No reform-minded candidate will likely consider working for him, ensuring that D.C.’s traditional public schools slide back into the academic (and bureaucratic) cesspool.
School reformers, who have long been better at winning over politicians than grassroots activists, need to learn how to build alliances for reform that extend beyond a mayor’s office. They may also need to stop focusing on overhauling districts — and try out alternatives. New Orleans, where 57 percent of students attend charter schools, may prove to be a great place to start. Louisiana’s school superintendent intends to shut down the Recovery School District and allow the 33 traditional public schools it oversees to choose between being under the watchful eye of the traditional school district (now shrunken from a massive 103 schools to a mere seven since Hurricane Katrina) or operate independently under state oversight as de facto charter schools.
As an object lesson, Adrian Fenty’s defeat could yet be beneficial for school reformers and America’s children alike — though not in Washington, D.C., not for the foreseeable future.