Sarah Rohan: The catch-22 of politics

By Sarah Rohan, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published January 17, 2012

Upon hiring Washington D.C.’s first chancellor of schools, then-mayor Adrian Fenty was asked by his newest employee, Michelle Rhee, “How much are you willing to risk?”

“Everything,” Fenty responded. And that he did.

Fenty, who spoke in Blau Auditorium at the Ross School of Business on Monday as part of the 26th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium, focused the majority of his speech — as he did his mayoral tenure — on education reform. The issue of education reform is perhaps foreign to students here in the erudite halls of the University, but the problem of a failing American school system is real and widespread.

Take, for example, the statistics of Fenty’s own Washington, D.C. school district. At the time of his inauguration in 2007, reading proficiency among eighth graders was 12 percent. The rate was even lower in math, with students showing an 8 percent proficiency. Washington, D.C.’s scores echoed hundreds of other schools systems across America, but Fenty — as mayor of a district with the worst scores in the nation — was unwilling to perpetuate the pitiful statistics.

Fenty looked to the radically different school models New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley employed in their own cities. Fenty felt that the best way to reform D.C.’s schools was to run them “like a private sector business” as Bloomberg and Daley had done. Consequently, Fenty transferred control of D.C. school systems from an elected school board to himself. In the final steps of transformation in 2007, Fenty hired Michelle Rhee, an inexperienced but determined former teacher, as the school district’s chancellor.

Throughout Rhee’s tenure as chancellor, she closed 23 schools and fired 266 “bad” teachers. Rhee introduced the notion Fenty refers to as “accountability” or the system of “rewarding good teachers and punishing bad teachers.” While public school teachers in D.C. received salary increases based on seniority, Rhee wanted to reward teachers with salary increases based on the quality of their instruction, rather than the length of their career. It was a bold move and didn’t go unchallenged.

In the span of four years, proficiency of D.C.’s 8th grade students rose to 15 percent in both areas of reading and math. According to Fenty, the improvements in this short period were greater than any recorded improvement in the preceding 30 years.

Despite the greatest educational turn-around in D.C. history, Fenty was not re-elected for a second term. The most unsettling fact about his failed bid for re-election is that the majority of those who voted against him were African Americans, or those who would be the primary beneficiaries of an improved public school system.

In trying — and succeeding — to make a radical change, Fenty ended his mayoral candidacy. The idea that marked change risks political backlash is not a new or unknown concept. Consider President Barack Obama, who won the 2008 presidential election largely through promises of great change but is now often criticized for being too passive. As frustrating as it may be, can we really blame him? We live in an era where the payoff of employing actual change comes at the expense of a political career. Fenty’s situation underscores the great catch-22 of politics — people make a career of politics to bring about change, but once they are put in a position to do just that, they will shy away from anything too drastic so as not to lose their career.

As sad as this reality is today, Fenty pointed out that it may not be the reality of tomorrow. Appropriately, Fenty quoted from King's “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop” speech wherein he recalled, “only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” To also borrow from MLK’s final speech, I believe that we have “seen the promised land” in both education reform and more broadly, political willingness to employ change thanks to Fenty’s efforts. The positive changes that happened in Washington D.C. during Fenty’s short tenure as mayor can happen in any arena where change is needed. Our politicians just need to practice a little more “dangerous unselfishness,” as King would say.

Sarah Rohan can be reached at shrohan@umich.edu.