Is D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's Loss a National Defeat for Education Reform?
Fenty's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, made headlines and no shortage of enemies in her quest to revamp the city's troubled schools. In rejecting Fenty, were black voters rejecting school reform too?
Rhee found support and enthusiasm in the education-reform community. The leading education-reform foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation, supported her reform agenda. Among education-reform advocates, among whom I count myself, she was a recognized star.
But the substance and pace of Rhee's reforms startled, frightened and angered many in the school system and the community, especially in the low-income black communities east of the Anacostia River, which divides Washington both geographically and socially. Although many parents recognized that DCPS needed reform and that part of that reform needed to be an upgrade in the quality of its classroom teachers, the suddenness of the changes she made, and the sang-froid of her reaction to people's discomfort, didn't sit well with many Washingtonians.
"People come to me all the time and say, 'Why did you fire this person?' " she told Time magazine. " 'She's a good person. She's a nice person,' " she continued, in the "drippy, grating voice" she uses to imitate people she doesn't respect. " 'I'm like, 'Okay, go tell her to work at the post office.' " The story made Time's cover, which showed Rhee grim-faced, dressed in black and holding a broom, looking for all the world like the 21st-century version of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Fenty and Rhee persuaded the foundations, the reformers and the media. But they failed to persuade the one group that could have kept both of them in office: low- and moderate-income African-American voters.
There's a lesson here for education reformers in other cities. Real education reform is disruptive. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Beloved teachers lose their jobs. Neighborhood schools that have anchored communities are closed or reconstituted. But with the disruption comes a rebirth of education, a rising tide that lifts all parts of the community.
Education reformers need to make that case. They need to make it to the parents who have the largest stake in quality education: their children's futures. They need to make it not only to foundations and editorial writers but also to neighborhood leaders, small-business entrepreneurs, and ministers and their flocks. In other words, they need to make it to the people with whose support reform will not only succeed but take root.
Because if they don't, other reformers will find themselves with Fenty and Rhee in the history of education reform, in the chapter titled, "What Might Have Been."
Michael Lomax is president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.