School for Jerks
The national press is now sorting through our primary election, trying to figure out what it all means for the future of young, bald, black politicians (look out, Cory Booker!), urban policy, and—most of all—school reform. On cable TV yesterday, Michelle Rhee was taking the blame for Adrian Fenty's defeat by Vince Gray. Asked on MSNBC if she helped cost her boss his job, the still-for-now DCPS chancellor replied, unhesitatingly, "Without a doubt." At the premiere last night of Waiting for Superman (a new documentary on failing urban schools and the reform movement Rhee comes out of), a crowd of national political, media, and education policy gave Rhee a big ovation, and the narrative that was emerging of Tuesday's election was pretty clear: School reform killed Fenty.
Which is a preposterously oversimplified way of looking at it. Yes, like many of the white, young, well-educated gentrifying class that made up Fenty's base, I think Rhee's reform plans have the potential to shake up a failing system. And yes, it's clear that much of Gray's base—especially the American Federation of Teachers members who endorsed him and spent $1 million on his behalf—didn't see it that way. But what went wrong with education reform in D.C. wasn't necessarily the substantive policy, or even Rhee's implementation of it. What went wrong with education reform in D.C. was Adrian Fenty.
Sure, Rhee pissed off a lot of people, pretty quickly, when she arrived here. She seems to relish confrontation, and her blunt assessment of Tuesday's results—which she called "absolutely devastating" to D.C. children—is just as confrontational as her aggressive campaigning on Fenty's behalf was; after all, she's basically telling the District's voters that they've doomed their kids. (Gray, of course, helped push for some of the structural reforms Fenty and Rhee put in place, and says he's committed to continuing the effort with or without her.) But DCPS is, as Rhee says in Waiting for Superman and in the glowing national media profiles of her, giving kids a crappy education. When 8 percent of D.C. 8th graders are doing math at the 8th grade level, it's hard to argue that point. So if Rhee felt the need to throw some sharp elbows around, maybe that's what the situation called for. Her job is to improve the schools, not win the next election.
Winning the next election, though, was part of Fenty's job. It doesn't do any good to bring in people who are on the cutting edge of their field's policies if you lose your own job not long after they arrive. Fenty simply couldn't be bothered to try to sell Rhee's school program to the people who mattered most in assessing it—District voters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in a smart post on The Atlantic's website today, putting smart department heads in place isn't enough; sure, policy wonks may look at what they're doing and admire the work, but you've got to tell voters what you're up to, and explain why they should trust you to carry it out. And if your schools chancellor is going out of her way to start fights all over the city, you've got to spend that much more energy running around trying to get people to buy into it.
That shouldn't have been beyond Fenty's power. Courtland Milloy was right to note, and mock, the patronizing tone a lot of the post-mortems take toward the majority-black D.C. electorate that sent the mayor packing in his furious Washington Post op/ed: "As for you blacks: Don't you, like, even know what's good for you?" But the split over education policy didn't have to get so vitriolic and racially charged. If Fenty believed as strongly as Rhee says he did that school reform was good for everyone in the city, he should have doubled down on his efforts to persuade others that it was. Instead, he watched, smugly confident in his own political sense, and sure people would grasp what he and Rhee were doing. And since no one bothered to try to tell voters why firing teachers and closing schools would yield long-term results, some voters, perfectly reasonably, rejected the idea.
But not all voters, and that's where the school reform focus in the post-mortems goes even more astray. This election was not a referendum on Rhee. A Mayor Fenty who didn't let basic political outreach slide, and who made some effort to keep the District's black middle class engaged in their government, who didn't give his frat brothers sweetheart contracts, who didn't snub Dorothy Height, and who picked his battles for important issues (like fixing schools) instead of pointless ones (like baseball tickets for the D.C. Council) could have done exactly what Fenty did on education, and still won. And even without Rhee, the Fenty we actually saw for the last few years would still have lost to Gray, who—after all—hammered Fenty mostly on style and process grounds.
Now that he's lost, Fenty's political incompetence is still undermining the policies he claims he stood for. While Rhee runs around taking blame for his loss, Fenty seems to think he did nothing wrong. "I have no regrets," he told Harry Jaffe. At a panel discussion after the Waiting for Superman premiere (which, by the way, made me want to drop everything and just go follow panelist Geoffrey Canada's orders), Rhee said Fenty had been the best leader she'd ever worked for.
Wrong. A good leader would have built support for what he believed in, would have been an evangelist for the school reform cause; a good leader would have led, and wouldn't have committed the other political gaffes that doomed him. Fenty may have been bold in appointing Rhee and letting her go to work, but after that, his inability to connect with his constituents just made things worse. Meaningful school reform doesn't have to die if Rhee goes, but if it does, it'll be Fenty's own fault.
Heckuva job, Adrian.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery