Obama rejects opportunity to speak out on education reform in Fenty reelection campaign

Jon Brown | Associate Editor

President Obama has repeatedly cited education as a top priority, promising to increase accountability for teachers, administrators and parents. But he missed a major opportunity to speak out, education advocates said Monday, by failing to campaign for Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is facing what many think is a likely defeat in Tuesday’s primary.

“Unless we take action – unless we step up – there are countless children who will never realize their full talent and potential. I don’t accept that future for them,” Obama said in March.

Fenty staked his political future on nationally known but locally embattled schools chief Michelle Rhee, who Obama praised when running for president but who is likely to be ousted if Council Chair Vincent Gray Tuesday becomes mayor.

“The president should have said something in support of Fenty,” said Juan Williams, a journalist and author who has long been a proponent of education reform. “Fenty has been willing to withstand the slings and arrows that come to a politician who stood tough in the midst of the education reform movement.”

Fenty said Friday that he had asked Obama – who is wildly popular with the African-American electorate that has turned against Fenty – to come to his aid. The Democratic mayor said he did not expect the president to do so, even though Rhee and Fenty have taken on the teacher union and fired underperforming teachers, tied pay to performance and moved to shut failing schools if they do not show improvement.

Obama has said throughout his presidency that he endorses the idea of requiring teachers to be more accountable, and said in a July 29 speech to the Urban League that “the status quo is inexcusable.”

“I am 110 percent behind our teachers,” he said. “But all I’m asking in return — as a president, as a parent and as a citizen — is some measure of accountability … we’ve got to make sure we’re seeing results in the classroom.”

D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, who supports Fenty, said the one person who could have changed the dynamics of the mayor’s race — ensuring Rhee another four years to implement her reforms upending the status quo — is the president.

“I think the president could have won the election for Adrian. I would go so far,” Graham said Monday.

“I think he should have,” Graham said, citing Fenty’s early endorsement of Obama during the presidential election.

“Fenty was there for Obama at the very, very beginning, when not a lot of people were stepping out for Obama,” Graham said. “And he is definitely in an Obama mold. I know it would be the president of the United States interfering with a local election in the capital of the United States. But I think he could have found something.”

“Maybe he’s done something that I don’t know about,” Graham said.

In fact, Obama did send Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “walk to school” on the first day back for D.C. students in late August. But council member Graham said the appearance of Duncan, who pushed to cut food stamp funding to make room for his “Race to the Top” program, would do little to win over the voters that Fenty needs.

“I don’t think it would have any impact,” he said.

Fenty is said to own some share of the blame for being in his current position. Critics say he was unapproachable for much of his time as mayor and even one supporter with ties to the Fenty administration told TheDC that Fenty has never done a good job of asking for help.

Williams said that Obama and Duncan have done a good job “on lots of key education issues,” but that “the potential of Rhee’s defeat will have tremendous national implications for the education reform movement.”

“People who care about education reform have to support politicians who are willing to take the static that comes from the very difficult work of school reform,” Williams said.

Test data this past March showed that D.C. fourth-graders led the nation in reading gains, one of several indications that changes implemented by Rhee are having an impact.

On Monday, as Fenty and Gray sprinted to the finish with appearances throughout the city, Obama spoke at the White House to leaders from historically black colleges and universities.

“Education means emancipation,” Obama said, quoting Frederick Douglass.

But to many education advocates and those in the city who support Fenty and Rhee for being willing to fire bad teachers, the president’s inaction has been exactly what he promised not to do: an acceptance of the downsizing of dreams for many inner-city and underprivileged children in the nation’s capital.

Reporter Mike Riggs contributed to this report.

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