Adrian Fenty: A mayor for everybody?

Liam Julian

On Tuesday, District of Columbia voters handed Adrian M. Fenty a decisive victory in the city's Democratic mayoral primary. In the District, where John Kerry took 89 percent of the vote in 2004, the winner of the Democratic mayoral primary is all but assured of being the city's next chief executive.

So Fenty--a 35-year-old, D.C.-born triathlete--will replace the ubiquitous, bow-tied Anthony Williams as leader of the nation's capital city.

Why should this matter to anyone outside the Beltway? Because Washington is also one of the nation's leading laboratories for urban school reform. Twenty-five percent, some 17,000, of its K-12 students attend charter schools, and another 1,700 are enrolled in private schools with the aid of federally-funded opportunity scholarships. The demand for both charter schools and vouchers far exceeds their current supply. Moreover, the school system itself, by common consent, remains broken, ineffectual and extremely expensive.

Thus, it's worth considering how a Fenty administration may affect education reform in the District.

Williams, a Democrat, supported the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program when it was proposed in Congress in 2003. The legislation was introduced by two Republicans, supported by President Bush, and feverishly attacked by many prominent Democrats such as Ted Kennedy.

Nonetheless, Williams (along with Senator Diane Feinstein) bucked the party line, opposed union bosses and political insiders, and threw his support behind the initiative. He said, "At the very least, we should experiment with choice in this city. If people are afraid to at least experiment, that tells me there is some self-interest in this motive."

Fenty disagreed. At a 2004 Capitol Hill rally, the then city councilor told an audience, "Our mayor was duped into believing the city would receive a cash windfall if he sold out to the Republicans." In 2003, Fenty also said of Williams, "He's on the wrong side. He's in bed with the president."

So is Fenty a reformer (as he's widely regarded), or a believer in status quo thinking? In 2004, he commented on a shortage of applicants for the Opportunity Scholarship vouchers in the first year of the program: "It very clearly says there is not a lot of support for vouchers. Where's the rush? Where is the onslaught of people who were supposed to come out and take part in this process?"

A year later in 2005, the demand for vouchers exceeded supply by more than two-to-one.

Over the past two years, Fenty's rhetoric on vouchers has softened, although his campaign website still boasts that he "led" the fight "to oppose federally imposed vouchers." Today, of course, it would be hard for the mayor to derail D.C.'s voucher program. It's Congress's baby and one doubts that Fenty is prepared to send thousands of poor students back to failing public schools. (His own two kids, it may be noted, attend private school.) Still, Mayor Williams provided support and air cover for the program in countless ways--pressuring the public school system to cooperate, tapping his outreach staff to help inform parents of the opportunity; his influential voice will surely be missed.

It's tougher to predict how Fenty's ascent will affect the city's charter schools. Though not under his direct control, he will get to appoint the members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the city's primary authorizer. The mayor also has substantial influence over issues critical to charters' continued development (e.g. zoning, access to city services and facilities, etc.). He's not provided any real specifics on the topic, although he did make education his top campaign priority (which reflected the priorities of D.C. voters, who tell pollsters that they are fed up with broken public schools).

D.C. insiders tell us that Fenty, like all of the major mayoral candidates, is a charter supporter. (See what 25 percent market share can do!) That's hard to see from the outside, though. Most of what Fenty has said to date about education has related to district schools. He has publicly expressed admiration for New York City's Joel Klein, with whom Fenty met, and he has voiced interest in taking the reins of the District's public schools--at least its failing schools, which is most of them--from the semi-independent school board. Fenty has also committed to appointing a deputy mayor for education.

He may favor radical restructuring, having told the Washington Post that "Low-performing schools have to be restructured right away, and everybody would have to reapply for their position--from the principals and teachers to guidance counselors."

That sounds right. Less appealing is Fenty's misguided focus on pouring money into D.C. schools to improve them. (Traditional public schools in D.C. already spend an average of $13,000 per child each year.)

The District began its charter school experiment a decade ago. Many of these schools operate in shoddy buildings in dangerous neighborhoods, but parents still prefer their classrooms to those of district public schools. Waiting lists run hundreds deep. In his victory speech, Fenty claimed he would be a "mayor for everybody." Families who've chosen charter schools or vouchers will want to know: does "everybody" mean their children, too?