It’s understandable that education reformers have already gone out of their way to assert that Michelle Rhee’s reforms weren’t determinative in Adrian Fenty’s failed mayoral re-election bid. Most of us want other mayors (and legislators, and governors, and presidents) to follow the Fenty/Rhee script closely, but they surely won’t if they believe that doing so would mean political suicide.
And let’s be clear: There’s plenty of evidence that Fenty’s loss had more to do with his “leadership style” than his policies. He didn’t reach out enough and he allowed himself to be painted as a “part-time” mayor who liked training for triathlons more than doing the work of meeting with constituents. Oh, and he was said to be not “black enough”—putting the interests of affluent white residents above those of poor and working-class blacks (in a majority-black city that is gentrifying rapidly).
But he was a major-league reformer on multiple fronts, starting with education. And let’s face it: The toughest of tough-minded reforms just aren’t all that popular with the public. While people overwhelmingly support vague notions of “accountability,” they have mixed feelings about accountability in action. Consider the latest Education Next poll. It asked respondents: “If a teacher has been performing poorly for several years, what action should be taken by those in charge?”Among the general public, 48 percent said “Provide the teacher with additional training and counseling,” versus 45 percent who said “Fire the teacher.” (Public school parents gave virtually identical answers.) We also asked respondents the same question about poorly-performing postal workers and police officers, and the results were pretty much the same. (Less than half of those polled wanted the worker fired.)
The one outlier group was comprised of African Americans, who were sharply opposed to firing teachers (only a quarter supported that course of action, versus three-quarters who wanted additional training). So it’s not hard to imagine the black community in D.C. coming to oppose Rhee and Fenty’s aggressive moves to terminate ineffective teachers—many of whom were and are black.
What’s interesting, though, is how the rise of charter schools hasn’t sparked the same push-back from the black community, even though far more DCPS teachers have lost their jobs to charters than to Rhee’s reforms. Of course, this type of job loss isn’t so visible; it’s stealthy. Enrollment declines, schools close, and new teachers don’t get hired. That’s a much different dynamic than learning that your neighbor was given a pink slip by “that Korean lady” who runs the school system.
So what’s next for D.C.? Surely Rhee is leaving, one way or another. Even if Vince Gray invited her to stay—exceedingly unlikely—it’s hard to imagine her sticking around to work for a man who has opposed many of her policies and who won his race with the strong backing of the teacher unions. And as Rick Hess pointed out a week ago, if Rhee leaves, the system will, over time, revert back to the same old-same old. No one is going to stay focused on rooting out incompetence and mediocrity without support from the top. Here’s hoping I’m wrong, but I’m not optimistic.
What will remain standing are the District’s charter schools, which will likely continue to gain market share and will probably serve a majority of D.C. students within a few years. While Washington would be better served with a strong public school system and a healthy charter environment, it’s better off with its charter schools than without. How ironic that charter schools will now provide the education “stability” in this city. (Keep in mind that, if Rhee leaves in January after three and a half years, she still will have been the longest-serving D.C. chancellor of the last two decades.)
Oh, and then there are the bike lanes, which Fenty installed and his opponents used to paint him as “too white.” I use them twice a day. And while the new mayor will likely roll back Fenty’s school reforms, the bike lanes will remain. Some things are easier to undo than others.
This piece originally appeared on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper. You can subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.