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D.C.’s Loss May Be America’s Gain

School-reform champions Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee put the pressure on D.C.’s next mayor this weekend with a dead-on op-ed in the Washington Post. There’s a justified perception that teachers’ unions are a political force to be reckoned with. But despite their recent electoral loss, famed reformers like Rhee and Fenty have opened the opportunity for parents and their children to become an entity to be feared, too.

Fenty and Rhee earned national acclaim by staring down the D.C. teachers’ unions, supporting the rights of parents to choose among educational options for their children, and penalizing teachers and schools that failed students. Under their guidance, the D.C. school districts showed dramatic improvement.

Fenty and Rhee’s message this weekend was clear: if the momentum of D.C. schools stagnates or recedes, you can blame the presumptive new mayor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. He has all the tools he needs to succeed, they argue; but it remains to be seen whether he has the requisite political courage. They write:

We absolutely believe the progress can continue. Our presumptive new mayor is a native Washingtonian who cares deeply about education. We leave behind arguably the most talented and driven team that a school district administration could have. They are in the schools; they are in the central office; they are in other District agencies partnering with DCPS to modernize schools and update and support technologies. All of these people and more are getting up every morning and doing the incredibly difficult work that the cameras don’t see. As leaders, we simply “blocked and tackled” so that they could get things done.

Rhee and Fenty say that they failed to establish broad support for their initiatives. If the D.C. Democratic primary was the only indicator, perhaps they’re right.

But interest in school reform appears on the rise, and a large percentage of the public supports holding teachers accountable and taking a stand against the unions that allow bad teachers to hold on to their jobs, raises, and benefits at the expense of American children.

Among the most interesting of these recent developments is the buzz surrounding the documentary Waiting for Superman, which has pointed a public finger at the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. But interest in genuine reform extends beyond the film. Want statistical proof? The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that 72 percent of public-school parents wanted teachers to be paid “on the basis of his or her work.” A September Time poll also revealed a public that would favor Rhee and Fenty’s approach; 66 percent opposed tenure for public-school teachers; 71 percent wanted to establish merit pay; and a plurality thought teachers’ unions kept schools from improving. Also worth examination is the survey conducted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next, which shows a markedly pro-reform attitude.

Rhee and Fenty may no longer be in office, but here’s hoping they remain in the spotlight. Across the country, the political mood is surly and dissatisfied, but what reformers like the Tea Partiers have too often lacked is an articulate and experienced figurehead to organize behind. Fenty’s defeat and Rhee’s resignation may open up a bigger political opportunity. Whereas before, Rhee and Fenty were empowered to affect reform only in D.C., influencing the rest of the country by example, now they have the opportunity to become the voice of a national school-reform movement.


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