The Agenda

Dana Goldstein and Rick Hess on Fenty’s Defeat and the Implications for School Reform

For Dana, the lesson of Fenty’s loss is that school reformers need to strive for collaboration and consensus:

If there’s a lesson for Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to learn from Fenty’s defeat, it might be that significant segments of the public—including the urban public school parents who have the most potentially to gain—are skeptical of the White House’s school reform agenda, which adopts many of the priorities of the Bush administration, including high-stakes standardized testing and tough accountability measures for neighborhood schools. While many in the media champion these policies, school reformers so far have failed to make the case to communities, who see their local schools not only as student achievement factories, but also as storehouses of community history, sources of jobs, and even repositories of racial pride. [Emphasis added.]

In a follow-up blog post, Dana writes:

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. 

It seems reasonable to suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t defer to the sensitivities of the loudest and most forceful voices in the conversation, as many argued in the case of the Cordoba House controversy. It could that the alumni of D.C. schools are threatened by what they see as elite ethnic outsiders who are trying to undermine the control of the city’s shrinking ethnoracial majority, and that teachers feel entitled to permanent job security and generous compensation, regardless of ability or the broader state of the economy.

Yet it’s not obvious that these strongly held preferences should carry the day. I actually do think there’s something to Dana’s argument about schools as repositories of racial pride, a case that Stuart Buck makes in his excellent book Acting White. But there are times when the politics of racial pride combines with the narrow self-interest of politically powerful constituencies in a way that harms the interests of vulnerable and voiceless individuals, like children and non-voting immigrant parents, among others.  

On the subject of DCPS, Rick Hess writes:

Given Fenty and Rhee’s determination to move forcefully to improve a district with no functioning personnel system, abysmal levels of achievement, schools in need of closure, a lethargic central administration, too many overmatched principals, and too many teachers who weren’t up to snuff, there was no way they could make real progress without angering powerful constituencies and hurting a lot of feelings. 

The real problem in D.C. wasn’t so much that Rhee and Fenty were aggressive. Rather, it is that they didn’t receive adequate political support:

Transforming dysfunctional systems inevitably entails fierce pushback in the schools and communities–especially in the African-American community. In places like New Orleans and D.C., even black parents who welcome many of the school improvements are concerned about the influx of “outsiders” or question whether reform needs to be so tumultuous. For would-be reformers to succeed in the long run, they can’t rely merely on test scores and graduation rates to win the debate–they need to address such concerns and explain why their harsh medicine is necessary. They need political cover and aggressive efforts to make their case to parents and voters. Even Rhee, perhaps the closest thing to an action figure in schooling today, couldn’t do all this on her own. No one backed her heralded efforts with the requisite muscle or organization, and the consequences are now clear.

Moreover, my sense is that Secretary Duncan has been excessively deferential to teachers unions and other constituencies that have opposed structural reform, as Hess has been arguing for months:

As the eagle-eyed Mike Petrilli called to my attention, the NEA yesterday sent out an ebullient press release headlined: “Most states would receive more aid under an education jobs bill than a Race to the Top grant.” And the NEA is absolutely right. After all, $23 billion is six or seven times the total amount of round two Race to the Top (RTT) dollars. 

The NEA’s release gloatingly quoted NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s opinion that, “Now is not the time for competition. Competition is a luxury our states should have during a budget surplus, not when they are facing record deficits and slashing jobs. Our children’s future should not depend on whether their state or district receives a competitive grant.” Sounding a lot like the Secretary of Education, Van Roekel explained, “Students need teachers and support workers helping them, protecting them, inspiring them, and educating them every single day. We have an ailing economy, and education is the medicine. Our educators are in our schools every day administering the cure.”

Man, Duncan just can’t get Van Roekel to win gracefully, can he? Last year, he gave the NEA $100 billion as a get-acquainted gift. The RTT guidelines were amended last year to insist on “buy-in” from union locals, among others. He tried to take the edge off of the round one Race to the Top results by seeming to suggest that Delaware and Tennessee won as much for their ability to garner buy-in as for the substance of their reforms. And, yet, even when he’s out shilling for them, he can’t get the NEA to avoid an ostentatious victory dance that diminishes and trivializes the administration’s prize education initiative. The result undercuts Duncan’s carefully crafted reform stance. Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy. [Emphasis added.]  

Nevertheless, it is certainly clear that reform opponents have won an impressive victory. At least one reason is that WTU used the compensation they receive from D.C. taxpayers to finance Vincent Gray’s campaign. This merits some reflection.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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