Fenty not feigning takeover

When Adrian Fenty paid a visit to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg late in 2006, he received some candid advice on taking control of K-12 city schools. Bloomberg urged the then want-to-be mayor to act quickly, and unilaterally. "You don't run things by committee," he told him. "You don't try to come to consensus when it's our children's future."

Gotham's top dog made an impression. Within hours of taking the oath of office as D.C.'s mayor, Fenty had a bill introduced to the District of Columbia Council to take control of the district's notoriously fractured school leadership and its underperforming schools. For the moment it appears that Fenty is going to get what he's asking for.

"We have a crisis on our hands," Fenty said in a news conference outlining his bid for control. "I am asking today for that responsibility to be placed squarely on my shoulders."

But just how much of that responsibility Fenty will be allowed to place on his fit shoulders remains to be seen. This much is sure--the more that lands there, the greater chance that he will be able to implement policies that generate improvements. (Of course, mayoral control doesn't guarantee success-just look at Detroit and Cleveland. But on the whole it appears to help galvanize reform.)

Fenty proposes organizing the District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) system under three leaders, each of whom answers to him directly: the chancellor (responsible for the day-to-day operation of schools), the head of facilities (responsible for all buildings and their use), and the deputy mayor (responsible for the newly created department of education, which will serve as a "state board of education," and all charter schools).

So far, so good. But there are a couple of kinks in the line of authority.

The most obvious is that the city council--on which sit the budget hardball-playing Linda Cropp (whom Fenty soundly defeated in the Democratic mayoral primary) and the notorious Marion Barry--will have line-item-veto authority over DCPS budgets. Said David Nakamura of the Washington Post in a recent online Q&A with readers, "the council will deal itself a significant hand in the new school governance structure," which could "slow Fenty down significantly." This could create precisely the "decision-by-committee" problem that Bloomberg warned against.

Another aspect of the bill that could prove troublesome to Fenty's plans is the district's dysfunctional special education department, whose budget (about 25 percent of the DCPS's total outlay) will create major drag on reform efforts unless significant changes are made. The mayor has given us lots of details on how to fix the rest of the education system, but has been too quiet to this point about how he will rein in the department that currently is bankrupting DCPS. The costs are due to the district's large percentage of special ed students receiving services (17.9 percent), but also to the significant number of those students placed in private educational settings at DCPS expense (roughly one-fifth of all special ed students).

The Parthenon Group, which Fenty hired last year to analyze the district's schools, named special ed as one of six "pain points" that would have to be addressed if mayoral control is to succeed in D.C. And yet, the bill requires only that "within 60 days of enactment ... the Department of Education shall report to the mayor and the Council on the status of ... the Special Education Reform Plan."

That Fenty has offered no specific explanations to date for how to grab the special ed tiger by the tail and handle it without being eaten alive doesn't bode well for bringing this department under control.

Difficult though these challenges are, they're hardly insurmountable. Fenty's bill, if passed, will deliver a "substantial jolt" to DCPS, Stanford University professor Michael Kirst told Gadfly in an interview. This, he argues, is necessary if the district's schools are to ever change. "Incremental change" simply will not root out all the systemic dysfunctions.

Moreover, he adds, the plan's design is "thoughtful," and is clear in "locating authority in the mayor's office." As for the problem of both the potential role city council may play, and the problem with special ed, Kirst concedes that the latter will prove especially difficult. But of the former, he says the council's "veto authority is already being rethought."

If that's so, then we're seeing signs that Fenty isn't just going to stop at gaining control--he's going to tweak, and hopefully muscle, everything to his advantage.

As Bloomberg counseled from the outset--to be successful, Fenty would have to be ruthless and aggressive. So far, he's been both. Let's hope the mayor/triathlete has the stamina for the long haul, however. Otherwise, he may well lose yet another battle for D.C.'s children's futures. And many of them don't have a lot of fight left.

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