No Reform Without Education

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The recent defeat at the polls of Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty demonstrates an important fact that philanthropists and school reformers have been overlooking: Not everyone has bought into school reform.

Fenty mistakenly staked his re-election on evidence that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michele Rhee had done the predominantly African-American city a favor by carrying out a dramatic turnaround strategy to improve its beleaguered schools. Fenty’s school reform proved to be popular among white residents, but unpopular in the black community.

The meaning of the vote in the Sept. 14 primary is likely to be misunderstood. It does not necessarily mean that black and white residents of the city are hopelessly divided, as some will say. Nor does it mean that black voters are necessarily against school reform, which will benefit many African-American children. But it does mean that Fenty, Rhee and other reformers failed to persuade the black community that it is worth making sacrifices to achieve school reform.

Washington is not unique in this regard. In communities across the country, school reform is certain to challenge many entrenched interests that are competing for tax money – not just the teachers’ unions. These groups are not yet ready to surrender power and influence to the school reformers.

Meanwhile, the reformers – who have received millions of dollars from Bill Gates and other top philanthropists – seem blind to the entrenched interests lining up against them. They have used their money to create a steamroller of a movement that has the unquestioning support of experts, as well as President Barack Obama, but has failed to persuade the people who have been doing things a different way for a long, long time.

The teachers’ union in Washington represents far more than a group committed to negotiating pay raises and job security. The men and women in the union are at the center of the black middle class in the District of Columbia. They demand and deserve respect. So when Rhee set out to fire many veteran teachers who were ineffective in the classroom, it had a much larger meaning in the D.C. culture. It meant that an African-American mayor was disrespecting his community elders.

Unfortunately, fears created by school reform in Washington have also become entwined with African-American opposition to gentrification, which has driven up property taxes and is likely to eliminate the city’s black majority in the next few years. School reform has become identified with dog parks, bike lanes and other things that Fenty created to appeal primarily to the newly arrived white residents. Thus, Fenty is seen as having indulged in the civic equivalent of “acting white.”

School reformers are motivated by a sincere desire to improve education for low-income black and white children. Their movement represents a genuine effort to provide an opportunity for inner-city youth to follow their teachers into the realm of the middle class. It may be occurring in lock-step with white gentrification, but it is not the equivalent of dog parks and bike lanes.

There is a danger, however, that the reform crowd will view the Fenty defeat as the African-American community’s ungrateful response to opportunity. Instead, reformers should understand that they cannot simply impose big changes on a community, even when those changes are in the interest of the people.

First, the people must agree.