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 (I learned all this the hard way when I campaigned, in high school, for my school district to retire its outdated and caricatured "Indian" mascot.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.