Don't blame education reform for Adrian Fenty's loss

Adrian Fenty's dreams of extending his mayoralty fizzled in September, when he was beaten badly in the D.C. Democratic primary. Over the intervening six months, the hard-driving politico has had little difficulty outlining a narrative that does two things: 1) explains why he lost; and 2) makes him look good in the process.

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The answer? School reform.

In interview after interview, the ex-mayor and Michelle Rhee, his former schools chancellor, have argued that political defeat is what happens to those who are so bold as to champion an aggressive stance toward teachers unions and a program of radical shifts in how business is conducted in the classroom.

This started pretty early. The day after the election, Rhee said she “absolutely” felt responsible for Fenty’s loss. (This was at the same event where she predicted the election results would be “devastating” for D.C. school children.)

"If it's a war," Fenty said a month later, in a bit of incredibly over-the-top rhetoric. "Someone's got to be at the front of the line, and they've got to get killed first. That's how you win a war, is by going forward."

And it’s continued to the present, as Fenty starts a career as a public speaker and Rhee launches her advocacy group Students First. Fenty took aim at public employee unions (not specifically teachers’ unions) during an appearance last week on Morning Joe. Rhee recently told lawmakers in Michigan (she’s also hobnobbed with top officials from Florida and New Jersey) that making changes to teacher tenure would be “incredibly difficult politically.”

This narrative, while accepted by the national political class, is increasingly betrayed by the facts on the ground in the District. Education reform, it appears, is the cause no politician can afford not to support.

While battling a series of political crises, Fenty’s successor, Vince Gray, has turned toward the education reform movement for cover. He nominated a top Rhee deputy to become the new schools chancellor. He’s appealed an arbitrator’s decision that overturned many of Rhee’s firings. If the unions are so powerful; if their organization and money defeated Fenty, why would Gray dare to cross them? Isn’t he sending himself to political doom? Nathan Saunders, the new president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, would have you believe that.

“What is alarming is that this mayor is going to put himself in the exact same position that Mayor Fenty was in with chancellor Rhee,” says Saunders. “That’s surprising.”

At the same time, all the major candidates running in a special election for an open at-large seat are generally supportive of the Rhee-Fenty brand of reform. Meanwhile, Gray’s moves toward the Fenty position haven’t drawn much of an outcry from members of the council. If there is a large constituency out there opposed to education reform, it lacks a politician willing to carry its flag.

Gray wasn't the union crony he was made out to be, and Fenty’s own political blunders sealed his fate as much as anything the Washington Teachers’ Union said or did during the campaign.

During the campaign, Gray refused to say whether or not he would fire Rhee if he won. While Fenty supporters criticized him for his ambivalence, Gray focused the campaign’s energies elsewhere, hammering Fenty for ethical lapses and over high unemployment east of the Anacostia. When he did talk about education, he walked a fine line, often noting that he voted for mayoral control of the schools back in 2007, when Fenty asked for it.

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