Four years ago, Adrian Fenty faced a well-regarded chair of the D.C. City Council in the Democratic mayoral primary — the only primary that counts in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. He carried every electoral precinct in the city. This year he faced another well-regarded City Council chair in another mayoral primary. This time he lost.
There are many reasons for this kind of reversal. Much has been made of Fenty's isolation from opinions he didn't want to hear — from supporters and critics alike. Much has been made of the imperious manner in which he governed the city.
But the fundamental critique of Fenty's term as mayor has as its focal point a single critical issue: education reform. And although ward-by-ward election results aren't out yet, pre-election polls showed Fenty with just 19 percent of the black vote.
So was the defeat of Adrian Fenty a rejection by black Washingtonians of education reform?
From his first days in office, no issue was higher on Fenty's agenda than education. One of Fenty's first acts as mayor was to demand and receive from the City Council full control over public education in D.C., demoting the elected school board to advisory status.
And one of the next things he did was to appoint Michelle Rhee, an education-reform activist, as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. This appointment followed the example of Fenty's role model, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appointed as New York chancellor former Justice Department official Joel Klein. Klein, like Rhee, had no previous experience running a big-city school district.
Rhee hit the ground running. She closed schools. She removed principals (who are not covered by a union) whose schools scored low on tests with more reform-minded replacements. She proposed to the Washington Teachers' Union a contract that sharply curtailed job protection. And as the contract worked its way through an interminable set of negotiations, Rhee terminated hundreds of teachers in layoffs she attributed to budget shortfalls. And she brought the union contract negotiations to a successful conclusion, trading higher salaries for less job protection.
Rhee got results. The year after she arrived, DCPS had the greatest gains of any state in fourth-grade math and was one of only five states to show increases in math for both fourth and eighth grades. The high school graduation rate increased faster than in previous years. And last month, the U.S. Department of Education awarded D.C. one of its highly competitive Race to the Top grants.
No residents of the city stood to gain more from Rhee's reforms than black families, especially low- and moderate-income black families. Higher-income families, both black and white, can send their children to one of Washington's private schools. But the tuition at these schools is quite steep; a year at Sidwell Friends School, which President Obama's children attend, costs $28,442. Price tags like that place private school out of reach for even many solidly middle-class families, let alone those of low and moderate incomes. They most need D.C. public schools to be good. They need the reforms Michelle Rhee instituted.
Why, then, did they vote against the mayor who appointed and stood behind Rhee, and for Council Chair Vincent Gray, under whom Rhee is almost certainly a goner? Did their vote of no-confidence in Fenty and Rhee amount to a vote against education reform?
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.