D.C. Power Grab

by Dax-Devlon Ross

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s Plan to Takeover Schools 

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is the charming, affable and youthful new mayor of Washington, D.C. He became a Ward 4 Council Member at the age of 29, served two terms in office and won the Democratic Primary (which in D.C. is the equivalent of the general election) through his energetic involvement in constituent services. Like his equally bald and beige Newark counterpart, Cory Booker, Fenty’s popularity among citizens is largely based on his fashioning of a Modern Man of the People persona. He’s artfully posited himself as a reformer and as a populist who has the best interests of the people at heart, which though it in all likelihood has merit, doesn’t account for his own ambitions. Already, he’s coming under heavy scrutiny for his plan to take over the public schools, a plan critics say will open the door for private enterprise to sink its tentacles into D.C. even deeper. Two days ago– March 13th– demonstrators took their complaints to the Mayor’s home.

The Gripe:

Critics of the plan argue that they did not elect the Mayor to take over the schools and usurp the power of the school board. They argue that he conveniently failed to reveal this takeover plan during his campaign and the mayor’s plan will strengthen the charter schools movement at the expense of public education. However, that appears to be untrue. At least one organization, Save Our Schools DC, revealed Fenty’s takeover plan back in October of ‘06. What that means is that the critics of the plan weren’t paying close attention and weren’t listening to those who tried to warn them. (See http://www.saveourschoolsdc.org/pdf/TimetoBreakOutoftheHerd.pdf for more on this)

What Stinks:

One legitimate criticism being lobbed against Mr. Fenty is that he’s trying to push a city council vote for his plan while two of the city’s Wards are without representation. Both the Ward 4 and Ward 7 seats are currently open and won’t be filled until elections next month.

The Real Beef as I see it:

What we have is a city power grab. D.C. is already in the irreversible throws of a brand of gentrification that has embittered long-time city residents who feel as though they are being pushed aside for big business interests. Public Education is one of the few remaining areas in which everyday people feel genuinely connected and involved in civic affairs. Through a duly elected school board, citizens can exert some influence over the direction of their lives and the lives of their children. To lose this power to the Mayor, who many believe is blindly representing the interests of the Federal City Council, would be yet another example of the blatant contempt with which D.C. residents’ rights are run rough-shod over by the federal government and other outside interests.

Fenty’s Position:

He see a school system in shambles. He sees a better way to run them. No one is disputing the facts. What’s in question is the plan. The argument critics of the takeover plan are making is that the decision of what to do (more charter schools or re-implementation of vocational, technical, and music/art programs in public schools) should rest with a representative body, not the Mayor

What’s happening behind the scenes:

There are a couple of unspoken and yet highly charged issues that aren’t being raised by either side but that have to be considered.

1. Unions: Charter schools are an end run around the Teachers’ Union. The Union protects jobs, wages and hours. Charter school teachers, particular those at KIPP (www.kipp.org) schools, can be required to work ten-hour days and weekends. They make competitive salaries but those salaries don’t necessarily reflect the hours worked. Charter school teachers typically aren’t protected via a collective bargaining agreement. In other words, they can be fired!

2. Not Public: Charter schools typically select their students and can choose to exclude certain students that might, conceivably, negatively affect the schools testing scores.

What’s Fenty’s Political Interest?

Education is where Fenty can make his mark. Anthony Williams, his predecessor, already got the ball rolling with the rebuilding of the city’s residential and commercial infrastructure. Fenty more or less just has to maintain the status quo. What he has to do is make his mark where Williams was woefully short: education. It’s where Mayor Bloomberg chose to make his mark once he took over for Guiliani who, like Williams, initiated a redevelopment and gentrification renaissance during his tenure. Critics of Fenty’s plan to follow in the footsteps of Bloomberg argue 1) that D.C. Public Schools can’t be compared to New York City Public Schools (NY was a bureaucratic nightmare with its multiple regions, layers of red tape and bloated administration; whereas D.C. Schools have always been centralized) and 2) the results of the Bloomberg-Klein agenda (funding charter and quasi-charter schools, shutting down under-performing schools, breaking big schools into smaller ones) are mixed at best.

In Defense of Charter Schools:

In charter schools parental involvement is encouraged, nurtured and sometimes mandated. Parents, students and principals sign a contract before the start of the school year. The contract is valid and enforceable. If parents do not make themselves available, if students do not meet attendance and preparedness requirements, they can and will be removed from the school. By the same token, principals promise an open-door policy. This may seem harsh but it does address one of the fundamental problems at the core of the public education system, which is that too often parents aren’t involved in their child’s education to the extend necessary to make up for economic and educational disadvantages and deficiencies.

In Defense of Public Schools:

There is a reason people fought for the right to public education. It is one of the bedrocks of a free and democratic society. It is imperfect but the principal upon which it stands must not only be respected but protected. This is an issue of principle and this principle undergirds the responsibility of government to perform the functions for which it was established. The government does not exist as a troth for private industry but as a beacon of public engagement. What, ultimately, is the function of a city government if it contracts out all of its responsibilities? What, then, is the point of democracy if the people have no say?


The ABC story covering the gathering outside of Fenty’s home labeled the picketers as “activists” while the NBC story labeled them “protestors.” The different use of terms is instructive in that one denotes an active, dynamic, and healthy public gathering while the other denotes yet another reactionary uprising that draws immediate links to a tradition of short-sighted, self-interested and emphatically “liberal” public demonstration to “force” social change.

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