School Reform Lessons From Fenty-Gray

Dana Goldstein writes about the Fenty-Gray election and the broader lessons for school reform:

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 have a number of responses to this. One is that I think Michelle Rhee unquestionably ended up doing this city a disservice with her habit of spending more time courting a nationwide constituency than on painful block-by-block selling of her message in skeptical communities. The fact that she packaged this posture up as an “I don’t do politics” persona was part of the misguided sales job and not a real reason.

But the other is that to a large extent I think the Fenty campaign simply never developed a real message about why it was doing what it was doing. A great Washington Post article by Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman reveals that Fenty simply never took the time to conduct polls and focus groups and assess what elements of his political strategy were and weren’t working. The animating impulse behind the Fenty administration was something like “this city has been poorly governed for a long time, and we need a jerk to come clean things up; Gray’s talk about consensus is a mask for preserving the status quo.”

But he never really said that.


Last, though, I don’t think we should overread this. In any given election only a few issues are salient to any given person. Education is important to teachers and to parents. Fenty claimed that by cracking down on teachers’ privileges he could make schools work better for kids. Teachers seem to have hated that idea, but parents like it. I’m skeptical that a broader “community” really cared much about this. Instead in this race, like in races across the country, I think the economy matters an enormous amount.

College-educated people have been insulated to an extent agains the terrible labor market conditions. And that’s been especially true of DC’s white college graduates, who generally work in the federal politics n’ government field. But for working class people more dependent on building trades activity, the past 18 months have been terrible. I don’t personally think that’s the Fenty administration’s fault, but the fact of the matter is that an incumbent running on his record is going to do badly among communities where his record doesn’t seem very good.

All of which is to say that the best way for any incumbent politician to get “buy-in” from any community for any kind of reform is to do the reform at a time when incomes and employment are rising. If there’s anything Fenty—or Barack Obama, or any other incumbent executive—could have done to be more popular, it’s probably something substantive and related to boosting his contituents’ incomes.