The past three D.C. mayors have sustained a surprising commitment to school reform.

In this installment of our series on Mayors and Schools we look at Washington, D.C., the site of some dramatic and controversial actions involving how the most visible elected officials in cities impact the education of the children they represent. Here we reflect back with Mayor Adrian Fenty on the work he began in 2007.

When the buses roll up to Washington, D.C. schools and more than 50,000 students walk into their classrooms, few of them will know that their day, and, in many respects their futures, were deeply influenced by a man who now spends most of his time on the other side of the continent. Adrian Fenty, Mayor of Washington, D.C. from 2007-2011, lives these days in Silicon Valley, but he left a major stamp on the city’s schools back east.

Shortly after taking office in 2007, Mayor Fenty successfully passed school reforms that gave him line-item control over the schools’ budget, as well as the power to hire and fire the superintendent.

It was not the first time D.C. leaders had pursued reforms of the District’s struggling schools. In the mid-1990s the D.C. Financial Control Board appointed a retired Army general to run the schools. Fenty’s predecessor Mayor Anthony Williams tried twice to get control of the schools. In the second attempt by Williams in 2004, Fenty–then on the city council–voted against the reforms. But Mayor Fenty changed his mind when he visited New York and saw efforts led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his school chancellor Joe Klein.

“One of the key points Bloomberg made was that an elected school board created too diffused a power structure,” Fenty said. “In reality no one was in control. There needs to be a single person in charge, like the police department. With a board, good goal-setting often doesn’t happen, and streamlined management and accountability is non-existent. Even if the board comes up with goals, they don’t have the management expertise to get it done. It became clear to me that the highest elected official in the city, the most powerful person, should have control over the most important issue.”

When Fenty first took office, the schools were facing such serious problems that his early work focused on very basic management challenges—things like getting the boilers working and paychecks delivered on time. Most in the city agreed that these core system improvements needed to happen. As the basics began to work better, Fenty and his new schools chancellor, Michelle Ree, turned to improving academics and test scores.

He let Ree lead: “My approach to education was the same as my approach to everything else,” Fenty said. “Hire a great person and hold them accountable. That’s what happens at AT&T and Google, and that’s what is often missing in education. I would raise concerns if kids were reading three or four or five grade levels behind, but I didn’t get into a specific literacy strategy.”

Ree began with changes that generally had broad-based support, including adding a Saturday academy and mentor programs for both students and principals. She and Fenty also attracted $75 million in foundation funding that helped create a merit pay system for teachers.

“We could only have done the kind of work we were doing if the Mayor was running the schools,” Fenty said. “It could only have happened if one person was in charge.”

The work became more controversial, especially when Ree closed schools and launched an assessment system that tied the merit pay to standardized tests. She became a national symbol of school reform, appearing on the cover of Time magazine with a broom, symbolizing her goal of removing underperforming teachers.

Controversy grew as Fenty headed toward the next election and, in 2010, he lost in the Democratic primary to Vincent Gray, 53% to 47%.

“It’s a simplification to say I only lost because of the schools,” Fenty said, “but it was definitely a big part of it. We just weren’t able to show people that if we moved as fast as we wanted to we could be in a place where many more of our kids would be getting the great education they deserved.”

In a few short years Fenty went from the Mayor most closely followed around the country for leading school improvements, to being out of office. There is hint of sadness in his voice as he talks about the turn of events, but I didn’t detect a single bit of regret.

“I was only able to get 47% of the vote but I know the percent of people who don’t want good schools is zero percent,” he said. “Most people appreciate that you have to create some rocking of the boat. But whatever the disconnect, the level of consternation, the angst, whatever you want to call it, was necessary to improve the school system. I’m not sure it’s possible to close 27 schools when you only have 140 and not get people upset.

“In a strange way hopefully people will come to the conclusion that you have to be willing to lose an election if that’s what it takes to fix the schools,” Fenty added.

The results of the reforms Fenty led have shown some promising results. A report last year shows that from 2007-2014 test scores improved across the District, although significant gaps remain across racial lines.

“Washington has made more progress than almost anywhere in the country,” Fenty said. “But I am the first person to say it is happening nowhere nearly as fast as it needs to happen.”

Fenty, whose rising political star fell quickly as controversy around his school work grew, said one of the most troubling dynamics he has seen is the politics of school improvement, including the reaction of fellow Democrats. “Democratic Mayors have been less likely to jump into the very controversial issues around schools,’ he said. “The Republicans are more willing to do this kind of work, but they don’t run cities. There is also the strange dynamic that the people most willing to support the controversial work are the ones in the more affluent areas with the best schools. The resistance often comes from the neighborhoods where the schools are the worst. It’s almost like the Twilight Zone.”

Six years after Fenty left office, his fire to improve schools hasn’t gone out.

“It is not acceptable that nine years after we started this work the school system is not working for every single kid,” he said. “It’s inhumane. The only standard we can have is that every single child should be getting the education we would have for our own kid. We simply can’t be this complacent about something that matters this much.”

Published: April 20, 2016
Category: Blog
Contributors: R.T. Rybak