On Fenty’s Defeat and Schools as Community

My take on Mayor Adrian Fenty's defeat in Washington, D.C. last night is up at The Daily Beast. In the piece, I write about how middle class black communities became skeptical of Fenty's aggressive school reform agenda, which he pursued through his lightning-rod chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who often voiced contempt for the idea of community buy-in. (Even, ironically, as she worked hard behind the scenes to encourage more families to enroll children in the public schools.)

Via Twitter, Matt Yglesias points me toward the City Paper's pre-election poll, which found that 62 percent of parents with children currently in the D.C. public schools did support Fenty. But the reality is that many other community members feel invested in their local school: those who work in the schools, graduated from them or saw their children graduate from them, or simply feel protective of them as a local institution. (I learned all this the hard way when I campaigned, in high school, for my school district to retire its outdated and caricatured "Indian" mascot. BOY, was I unpopular with the old folks!)

This doesn't mean the schools shouldn't be overhauled. They should be! They need to be! And it is children's and parents' needs that should matter most in education! It does mean that the Fenty/Rhee PR strategy–freewheeling with the besotted national media, close-to-the-chest with the more critical local press, and derisive of local institutions–likely contributed to the allegations of arrogance that (along with economic malaise) cost Fenty the race.

This definitely has ramifications for the national movement of eduction reform entrepreneurs who are favored by the Obama administration. It's a reminder that systemic overhaul, in which the achievement-first, tough accountability values of high-performing charters are grafted onto traditional neighborhood schools, won't be just about winning mayoral control or negotiating with teachers' unions. It's also about accepting that schools and neighborhoods are one and the same, and meeting people where they are to learn what they value about their schools, what they'd like to improve, and hopefully, to convince many of them to get on board with reform.

Update: Commenter "Guy," below, alerts me to the fact that the City Paper poll's demographics are hugely out of whack. I've checked it out, and it appears to be true. While over 80 percent of D.C. public school students are black, just 42 percent of the poll's DCPS parent respondents are black. Meanwhile, white children make up about 10 percent of the schools, but 43 percent of the parent poll-takers are white. 

Unless I'm missing something (and please tell me if I am), that means the point I made in my Daily Beast column is likely true: that plenty of public school parents in D.C., especially black parents, were skeptical of the Fenty/Rhee edu reform agenda.

2 thoughts on “On Fenty’s Defeat and Schools as Community

  1. Guy

    The poll you cite cannot provide an accurate assessment of DCPS parent attitudes. First, it consists of only about 64 interviews (8% of respondents). More importantly, only 42% of surveyed parents were Black, about half the true proportion of DCPS parents, while whites (43%) and Asians (6%) are both massively overrepresented. It’s also noteworthy that 85% of parents surveyed had attended college, including 74% with a 4-year college degree, much more highly-educated than the reality. (All of this information is available via the City Paper interactive graphics).

    The survey is at best telling you how highly-educated, non-Black parents feel. And given that Gray lead Fenty by 50 points among Blacks overall in the survey, it is exceedingly unlikely that a majority of DCPS parents in fact voted for Fenty.

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  2. john thompson

    The NAEP is the most reliable test of student performance but even it is subject to politics. Its sample for D.C. was just as cozy, with its testing sample being 70% poor and single digits in IEPs and ELLs. My district is 90% poor, 2/3rds of my 210 students were seriously at risk, and we have less than hald the per student spending so Rhee shouldn’t be a model for us.

    You wrote “It’s also about accepting that schools and neighborhoods are one and the same, and meeting people where they are to learn what they value about their schools, what they’d like to improve, and hopefully, to convince many of them to get on board with reform.”

    I wish I had, but I’ll soon steal that expression of wisdom.

    I’d another another observation about the Roeformey types. One person’s “reform” is another’s educational malpractice. “Reformers” apparently don’t believe that veteran educators who view nonstop test prep, curriculum narrowing, litmus tests, and non-stop lockstep micromanagement as wrong should express our beliefs in the political arena.

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