City on a Hill: The Re-education of Fenty

December 6, 2007

Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee heaped the insult of exclusion on top of the considerable injury of 23 planned school closures when they left DCPS parents to learn about their proposal from a leaked report in The Washington Post. Community members feel, understandably, shocked, alienated and enraged.

Fenty and Rhee claim to consider parents and D.C. Council members as partners in their quest to reform the school system, but there was no cooperation on the planning of their proposal to “Renew, Revitalize and Reorganize DCPS.” The plan calls for comprehensive staffing models to provide full faculty and staff for every school in the District and the implementation of specialized programming like Gifted and Talented programs. The resources for the renewal and revitalization aspects of the initiative will require “rightsizing the school system”—an Orwellian euphemism for the closure of 23 under-enrolled schools. Community members had no say in the plan.

At an emergency community meeting held in Ward 5 Monday night to “discuss” the proposal, irate parents let loose on Rhee. Shouts of “You just got here, we live here!” and “Why should we listen to you? You didn’t listen to us!” drowned out Abigail Smith, special assistant to Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, as she trudged through her PowerPoint presentation about the plan’s advantages and what will determine which schools will be shut down. The crowd was only pacified when Councilman Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) stepped forward and beseeched the parents to act as examples for their children.

“We put [Fenty] in office and we can take him out,” threatened Clarence Cherry, President of the Parent Teacher Association at John Burroughs Elementary, one of the schools slated for closure.

Community members are right to be upset. Since the plan leaked, parents have raised several legitimate concerns regarding student safety, the effect of charter schools on DCPS enrollment and a perception of the racial bias in the selection of schools slated for closure. Seeking community input before completing the proposal would have improved the plan and made the idea of numerous closures more palatable.

Unfortunately, the furor over Fenty and Rhee’s tactics overshadows the potential value of the proposal. Though the plan is flawed in the specifics of which schools are to be closed and the elimination of middle schools in favor of a K-8 model, it has potential. The 302 square feet DCPS devotes to each student, nearly twice the national average, is an unnecessary drain on financial resources. According to Fenty, the proposal could save the District $23.6 million—money better spent on progressive programs than maintaining excess space. But unless Fenty and Rhee can learn to work cooperatively with DCPS parents and the D.C. Council, they risk being stymied in this and future education reform.

“I think some school closures are necessary and can be justified,” school activist Marc Borbely said. “They have to work with people and be honest and open to change and not just try to ram things through … [Fenty] billed himself as a populist who would work with people, not a dictator.”

DCPS parents don’t want to be lectured at or lorded over,;they want to be substantively involved. Rhee must use her nine planned community meetings not for their original purpose of “outlining the plan” but rather to gather feedback from informed community members; Fenty, in turn, must give serious consideration to their input before enacting the proposal.

D.C. is lucky that it finally has a mayor and a chancellor who are committed to addressing DCPS’ problems, but their overzealousness must not get in the way of actually fixing those problems. The future of D.C.’s children should not be jeopardized by adults’ power plays.

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