Does Mayor Fenty Want to Have his Cake and Eat it Too?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Last week was a busy one for D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. In the span of five days he marched on Capitol Hill with 3,500 residents, won control over the city’s beleaguered school system, completed his first 100 days in office and saw the House of Representatives pass a voting rights bill for the District of Columbia. Amid the flurry of activity there was praise – he made 162 appearances in 100 days, including numerous to under-served communities and community board meetings – and criticism – the active schedule has led some to wonder whether he’ll be able to “focus on the harder parts: spelling out the details for improving the 34,000-employee bureaucracy, improving the schools, reducing crime and narrowing the economic divide.”

While most, including me, consider his first 100 days a success, I nevertheless found myself fixating on an episode that took place during last Monday’s rally at Capitol Hill. It seems as though a group of teachers and parents decided to conduct their own protest. Carrying a banner that read that read: “Democracy Starts at Home: Referendum on the Schools Takeover,” this small cadre attempted to bring their gripe with the Mayor’s school takeover plan to the table but were summarily shoved aside by voting rights activists.

Although The Washington Post story covering the protest only briefly mentioned the referendum protestors, however I couldn’t stop thinking about them for the remainder of the week. Did they have a point? Is there something contradictory in the Mayor’s position regarding D.C. voting rights vis-a-vis his school takeover plan? If so, what does that mean? What does it matter?

Briefly, here’s the issue. On one side you’ve got an activist mayor who’s putting his clout behind an issue that city residents have been passionate about for years: the right to representation. D.C. has 600,000 residents and no vote in Congress. The only legitimate defense the federal government offers is rooted in the Constitution. D.C. is not a state therefore it does have the right to vote in Congress. To city residents, this is a classic example of taxation without representation. As they see it, the vote in the House of Representatives is the first step to Statehood.

On the other side you’ve got a brand new mayor who is effectively usurping the role of the school board without allowing city residents to vote on the issue themselves. Instead, he decided to use an easier route: a city council vote followed by congressional approval.

The contradiction: the same mayor who wants to win voting rights for his city is arrogating voting rights from his residents.

My gut says these two issues are not two sides of the same coin. D.C. city schools have been failing for many years now. This new plan is a last resort effort to salvage public education rather than hand it over to a private corporation. Many mayors around the country, including New York’s, have orchestrated similar school takeovers in order to improve their functionality and student performance.

Similarly, the voting rights issue isn’t just a matter of autonomy, it’s a matter of democracy and reciprocity, and a matter of fundamental justice— a people’s right to participate in their own governance. Hundreds of thousands of D.C. voters are systematically disenfranchised in Congress every day. The entire city lacks any meaningful representation in the Senate. This is an untenable situation.

At the end of the day, D.C. school children are not deprived of their right to be educated because the Mayor has taken over the schools. The students are still receiving an education that will be guided by city and national standards. All that is really changing is the person (or people) in charge of the school system. Now, rather than a Superintendent, the Mayor will be the ultimate overseer of schools.

Am I missing something here?