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D.C. Mayoral Primary Looking Grim for Fenty: Edu-Implications

By Rick Hess — August 30, 2010 4 min read
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Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is trailing City Council President Vincent Gray by 17% among likely voters in the city’s Democratic primary. The primary will be held September 14 and, in almost entirely Democratic D.C., is tantamount to election. The WaPo results reflect survey numbers reported earlier by the Washington Examiner, and follow several weeks of straw polls suggesting trouble for Fenty. Fenty, who swept to a massive citywide victory in 2006, has held his support among D.C.'s white voters but has cratered among black voters--he’s trailing Gray 64-19 among registered black Democrats. The deep-pocketed Fenty effort has floundered even though 67% of registered Dems say the mayor “has brought needed change” to the city.

Hard-charging D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made it clear that she regards Fenty as a stalwart champion and is skeptical that Gray would provide the same support. For his part, Gray has equivocated about whether he would seek to keep Rhee, just as he has on the contentious particulars of her efforts. In a race where the WaPo reports that DCPS is the single most important issue for voters, reactions to Rhee’s efforts loom large-- 41% of Democratic voters say her record is a reason to vote for Fenty and 40% term it a reason to vote against him.

I see three takeaways here. First, there’s a lesson about the metrics used to gauge reform. Rhee and her team have done numerous things that are important and measurable but that I would not expect to have shown up yet in reading and math scores. And yet Rhee and her supporters have tried to argue for her efforts almost entirely in terms of test scores and “achievement gaps,” minimizing these accomplishments and shifting the debate away from some of her most impressive feats. Rhee’s team has cleared an enormous backlog in special education, shuttered a slew of underutilized and decrepit schools in a move that saves millions each year, fixed a profoundly dysfunctional system for procuring and distributing textbooks, overhauled a broken data and human resources operation, improved hiring, built a top-shelf research department, and created a performance-based evaluation system that will enable supervisors to gradually improve classroom instruction over time.

Such wins are critical to the long-term prospects of DCPS, even though they are unlikely to yield short-term test gains. Yet, for reasons that continue to escape me, would-be reformers are actively disinclined to measure these things, focus upon them, or claim clear gains in efficiency or service as significant wins. Not surprisingly, the media--and even those critics who say it’s not just about test scores--then discount the unmeasured and rarely discussed infrastructure wins and focus on debating the reliability and trajectory of test scores.

Second, the popular question of the moment is: “Would a Gray victory offer a chance to build on what Michelle has done, while soothing the rough edges?” I’ve heard this query from at least a half-dozen reporters, civic leaders, and self-styled reformers of late. The historical record suggests that the clear answer is “no.” If Rhee leaves under duress after a little more than three years and hands off to someone brought in as a conciliator, it’s safe to say that much of the good that she’s accomplished will be unraveled. A Gray victory would embolden the Washington Teachers Union and the neighborhood and bureaucratic interests that chafed under Rhee’s firm grip. (Unless, of course, Gray chose to forthrightly embrace Rhee.)

A “collaborative” superintendent brought in to foster consensus will have difficulty resisting various claimants--and will quickly be attacked as insufficiently collaborative should she try. The talented central staff, school leaders, and new teachers recruited under Rhee simply haven’t had time to put down roots deep enough to upend decades of established culture. Absent district-level accountability and steely leadership, history teaches that these staff would be left to mount a rearguard fight against resistant community and school interests. Many would be poached by other districts or by charter schools, and the new systems put in place at the district level diluted or rendered toothless.

Third, there’s a caution for overcaffeinated fans of mayoral control. Mayoral control can allow a city like D.C. to promote a coherent, aggressive agenda for improvement. Done smart, it can be a promising and viable strategy. However, D.C. is an example of why we ought not to romanticize mayoral control or ignore its limitations. Because Rhee’s efforts are integral to Fenty’s legacy, a challenger who unseats him has particular incentive to alter course in a visible way. This is true anywhere the prior administration’s efforts were ambitious (and, therefore, inevitably polarizing).

The nature of an appointed supe’s relationship to the mayor means that Rhee hasn’t had much of an independent mechanism for organizing civic leaders, building mailing lists, or holding community gatherings (outside of school-based information sessions). That kind of blocking and tackling is essential if would-be reformers are to convince parents and voters that all the noise and unpleasantness is necessary--and not, as critics charge, merely a question of personality and abrasive leadership style. An overreliance by a mayor on brute force can leave school reforms without allies or political cover when the wheel turns. I believe mayoral control, on the whole, to be a good thing for D.C. But it’s necessary to approach it with eyes open and resist the temptation to treat it as a shortcut.

(For those who are interested, I’ve more to say on this count in my forthcoming The Same Thing Over and Over, due out in November from Harvard University Press).

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