article

09.15.10

Obama Loses a Mayor

Adrian Fenty’s defeat puts Washington, D.C.’s aggressive school reform efforts, spearheaded by schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the chopping block—and is a lesson for the president from voters.

The not-quite-unexpected defeat of Washington, D.C.’s wunderkind mayor, Adrian Fenty, by the decent but relatively milquetoast City Council chairman Vincent Gray, has everything to do with the debate over Fenty’s aggressive school reform efforts. The words used to describe Fenty by the 53 percent of District residents who opposed his reelection—brash, arrogant, condescending—are really descriptions of his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a woman who has said, over and over again, “Collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.”

“She’s nasty,” 59-year old D.C. resident Sandra Wood said of Rhee, speaking to Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter Tom Moroney. That is the outlook of many of D.C.’s middle-class black residents, whose neighborhood schools were tagged as “failing” and closed by the Fenty/Rhee administration, and whose friends and neighbors lost jobs in the city’s central education office or as teachers, while their union was vilified. Many feel generally ignored and belittled by the 40-year old chancellor who, in 2008, appeared on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. The message? Rhee would sweep out the inefficiencies, cronyism, and low expectations that have (along with poverty and white flight), made D.C. one of the most troubled districts in the nation.

The Michelle Rhee reform agenda may now be aborted before it has been fully implemented, giving education reformers one less data point in their search for strategies that work.

As antithetical as the Fenty/Rhee scorched earth PR strategy is to President Obama’s own calm and conciliatory tone, there is no doubt about it: Rhee’s education reform agenda for D.C.—closing down failing schools, firing ineffective teachers and principals, and instituting teacher merit pay based in part on kids’ standardized test scores—is near and dear to Obama’s heart. The very same policies were incentivized by his administration’s Race to the Top program, a $4 billion grant competition in which states competed for stimulus dollars by promising to institute such reforms.

If there’s a lesson for Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to learn from Fenty’s defeat, it might be that significant segments of the public—including the urban public school parents who have the most potentially to gain—are skeptical of the White House’s school reform agenda, which adopts many of the priorities of the Bush administration, including high-stakes standardized testing and tough accountability measures for neighborhood schools. While many in the media champion these policies, school reformers so far have failed to make the case to communities, who see their local schools not only as student achievement factories, but also as storehouses of community history, sources of jobs, and even repositories of racial pride.

Fenty and Rhee learned that last lesson the hard way after they floated the idea of relocating the Duke Ellington High School for the Arts, a predominantly black school in the affluent neighborhood of Georgetown, to the Union Station area downtown. The proposal ignited a firestorm as longtime District residents linked the school’s potential move to the Georgetown neighborhood’s long history as a segregated white enclave made purposefully inaccessible to the city’s black majority. (Infamously, there is no Metro service to the area). Even the Georgetown University student newspaper joined the protests, editorializing, “The Georgetown community ought to join the parents in resisting relocation…[Ellington] draws about 500 students from around the District, many from dangerous neighborhoods who are lucky to attend school in such a safe area.”

Daily Beast contributors on the primary resultsAll of this is not to say the Fenty/Rhee reforms are a failure; the District’s schools have been far more orderly under their tenure, more families—including those headed by college educated parents—are choosing to enroll kids in the public system, and the jury is out on student achievement and teacher reforms. Indeed, the tragedy of Fenty’s loss is that the Michelle Rhee reform agenda may now be aborted before it has been fully implemented, giving education reformers one less data point in their search for strategies that work.

One hopes that if D.C.’s new mayor, Vincent Gray, asks Rhee to stay on, she will. (Gray has been unclear about his intentions on this question.) But one also hopes that, in Fenty’s defeat, Rhee has learned a lesson crucial to any effort at institutional reform: Collaboration and consensus building aren’t overrated, after all.

Dana Goldstein is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, and a former associate editor at The Daily Beast. Her writing on politics, women's issues, and education has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, BusinessWeek, and Slate. You can follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.