Fenty’s defeat puts future of D.C. education reform in question

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Few people are likely happier about D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s loss yesterday in the Democratic primary than members of the Washington Teachers Union.

Fenty and his Chancellor of Education Michelle Rhee have often clashed with the WTU in their efforts to reform D.C.’s public schools. A particularly contentious dispute occurred last October when Rhee laid off 266 teachers, citing budget cuts. The WTU sued, and a judge later questioned the validity of the cuts.

During the election, the WTU, the local arm of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Fenty’s opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, and mobilized its members to knock on doors, circulate campaign literature, and run phone banks in support of Gray, the ultimate winner. While the AFT does not disclose information about the amount of money it spends on campaigns, The Washington Examiner reported last week that AFT intended “to spend well into six figures.”

Kevin Carey of Education Sector, an education policy think tank, told The Daily Caller that Fenty’s support for school reform and his acrimonious relationship with the teachers union were “significant” factors contributing to his loss Tuesday.

Though Gray has yet to officially comment on the fate of Rhee, with Fenty’s defeat, it seems unlikely she will remain in her post as chancellor. She and Gray have clashed over education reforms in the past, and Rhee actively campaigned for Fenty’s reelection

In a statement in the wake of Fenty’s loss, Rhee said that though both candidates “embraced education reform in this primary” and that “[n]o one is suggesting we turn back the clock,” she stated “these reforms are not irreversible” and  stressed the need for “political courage” in supporting the them, noting that Fenty had told her “he would back reform 100%, regardless of the political costs.”

While the future of Rhee’s school reforms now remain uncertain, Andrew Campanella, senior communications advisor for the Alliance for School Choice, pushed back on the narrative that the Democratic mayoral primary was primarily decided by positions on school reform. He insisted in an interview that there is broad public support for school reform and that it would be “a big mistake to think that this [election] was in anyway a referendum on education reform,” citing a host of other issues over which Fenty has been criticized, including his personality and campaign style. Campanella also noted that D.C. residents are overwhelmingly supportive of Rhee’s reforms.

Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University, suggested that some D.C. residents reacted negatively to the pace Rhee implemented her reforms, rather than the reforms themselves.

“She has been very impatient,” he said, adding that Rhee was “pushing them [reforms] much faster” than people would perhaps have liked.