Education Reform: What Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee Got Wrong

D.C.'s outgoing mayor and his schools chancellor used education reform as something to do to black people instead of with black people. Reform advocates around the country should be taking notes. This is a local story with national implications.

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Neighborhoods benefit, too, from stable and effective schools that can, once again, serve as the anchors for neighborhood activities. It is the business community, which needs both the educated work force that good schools produce and the better-paid customers who are the byproduct of good schools. And cities need good schools because research has shown that well-educated citizens are more politically active and, by the way, better able to pay the taxes that support good roads, good parks and strong public schools.

Education reform must also be about communities, because in our country, education is subject to the democratic process. Whether schools are under direct mayoral control or governed by a school board or board of education, voters have the ultimate say. If they aren't persuaded that education reform is in their best interests, or if the tribunes of reform institute their changes in ways that alienate the people who vote in city elections -- even if they are the people who stand to benefit from those changes -- the reformers will find their mandate to reform abruptly terminated. That is what Fenty and Rhee discovered.

The outgoing mayor and his chancellor will be all right. They're young, intelligent and highly educated. But the prospects for children in the D.C. schools, and for the schoolchildren in other communities where education reform is being implemented, hang in the balance.

Fenty and Rhee set one kind of example. Gray can set another. He can show that education reform doesn't have to be -- indeed, cannot be -- force-fed to communities of color. They have sacrificed and struggled to earn the rights of citizenship -- a struggle still incomplete in D.C. -- and no one can take those rights, no matter how noble the aims. 

We can be equal partners in ensuring what is best for our children and all children. It won't work any other way.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund). He is a contributing editor for The Root.

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