By David Edward Clark
Adrian Fenty ’92 opened this year’s convocation series with a talk on his efforts to reform the Washington, D.C. school system during his term as mayor.
“It is very often these days that education reform is referred to as the latest chapter in the civil rights movement.” Fenty pointed out that, along with being a social issue, education is critical to the business world. “Often you will hear people say that it is important that we, as a nation, maintain our place in a competitive global atmosphere and the only way to do so is to focus more aggressively on education.”
When Fenty took office in 2006, the Washington, D.C. school system was the third highest spender per pupil of any city in the country. “As most people know, Washington, D.C. was pretty much ranked 51st out of 51, quote unquote, states,” said Fenty. “One of our high schools…had a 24 percent graduation rate.”
Given an $11 billion budget and 30,000 employees, Fenty realized that with great power comes great responsibility: “I knew I that would not be satisfied being mayor of the District of Columbia unless I used the powers that I had to do extraordinary things,” said Fenty.
Fenty built his reputation as being a “constituent-focused man of the people who had a passion for fighting for the underdog” during his time as a member of Washington, D.C.’s city council.
“It probably was a bit of a surprise to the business community that I was willing to take on their most important issue – education reform – and put at risk all of the support we had gotten from the grassroots organizations in the city who had made me the first mayor in the history of [Washington, D.C.] to win all 142 precincts,” said Fenty. “But what the business community and others didn’t know was I had made a pledge to myself when I had first gotten elected to city council. As long as I was in office, I would make every decision based upon whether or not…I would be able to look back and those decisions would have been made without deference to political expediency.”
Fenty then listed some of the statistics he faced in 2006. The school system had a graduation rate of 43 percent and nine percent of those that graduated went on to finish college in five years. They had cycled through six superintendents in ten years and had more than 20,000 backlogged work orders.
“Report after report had been issued about what needed to be done, and politicians every four years promised they would do something about it – but nothing changed. In the minds of so many thousands of residents of Washington, D.C., the city school system needed to be blown up,” said Fenty. “We needed to start over.”
“It’s interesting because that’s exactly the terminology I used to use when I was campaigning for mayor, and so when I got elected and sent legislation to city council, I had the very small task of figuring out how to convince the city council to give me the power to do so.”
Given that Fenty had won every precinct and that school reform was an issue other major American cities had taken up, he was able to convince the council to hand over control of the school system.
“What I had learned in talking to big city mayors and to others who had run cities and governments was the number one thing you have to do in turning things around and managing a city properly was to hire good people,” said Fenty.
The person he hired was 36 years old, had never run a school system before, and had a strained relationship with unions. Fenty knew that hiring such a candidate was extremely risky. “My belief was the city needed somebody who would do things dramatically and drastically different – and so we hired Michele Rhee,” said Fenty. “To some she was a nightmare; to myself and others she was a breath of fresh air.”
The biggest problem Fenty and Rhee encountered was that the school system had been designed with the interest of adults in mind. “We were flipping the old ways of doing things on its head, and so we decided together that as long as we were in charge of the District of Columbia’s public school system, we were only going to make decisions that were in the best interest of the students,” said Fenty.
Closing schools was high on the to-do list. “At the time we had 140 schools; it was the exact same number of schools as when the school system was double the size.” With underpopulated schools requiring their own principals and custodial staff, “[We were] spending the same amount of resources to run two schools as you could to run one school,” said Fenty.
Closing 27 schools in one year allowed Fenty to cut half of the central administration. He also renegotiated agreements in order to rid the system of policies such as automatic two-year tenure and bonuses based solely on seniority. “All of these things individually would have been very controversial. Collectively, they probably amounted to political suicide,” said Fenty.
Fenty has been asked many times why he made these decisions. “It comes down to not being politically expedient and really trying to make sure that we got the type of change that D.C. had wanted to see for a long, long time.”
Fenty draws inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech, entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In the speech, King states that he would rather live in Memphis in 1968 than any other time or place. “What King says about the civil rights movement and his appetite and energy to be a part of it and not willing to live in a time when things were more blissful and peaceful makes me think about the education reform movement a lot.”
Fenty is greatly moved by King’s call for a kind of “dangerous unselfishness” among citizens. “It speaks to personal sacrifice. It’s as if he’s telling us at the time that living a life of ‘dangerous unselfishness’ is a way to commit to not only what’s in your best interest, but it’s better to commit oneself to what’s in the best interest of others.”
Fenty then returned to the narrative of his school reforms. When looking for a chancellor for the Washington, D.C. school system, Fenty called Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system, and asked for help.
After a few weeks of thinking about it, Klein contacted Fenty with his suggestions. One was a safe choice who would move things forward and not ruffle feathers. The second, said Fenty, recalling Klein’s words, “would ruffle feathers. In fact, she would make your job very, very difficult but she would fix your school system faster and more effectively than anybody else.”
Fenty was eager to meet the second one and told the story of her hire. “Michele Rhee comes in, we begin the conversation. She says ‘Mayor, you don’t want to hire me to be your school’s chancellor.’I think to myself, ‘Well, this is a very interesting way to apply for a job,’ and I say, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ She says, ‘Politicians don’t like people like me because I’m the type of person who’s going to make the decisions that are politically unpopular, and it’s going to make it hard for you to get reelected.’ I told her then, similar to the pledge I made to myself, ‘As long as every decision that you are making is in the best interest of the students in our system, well then you’ll have my support 100% of the way.’”
In another conversation before she took the job, “[Rhee] asked me, ‘Mayor, how much are you willing to risk?’ To be honest with you, without thinking about it, some would probably say I should have thought about it – but I didn’t, I literally said, ‘I am willing to risk everything.’ Which, of course, in many ways became prophetic,” said Fenty.
Fenty is often asked if he could do it all over again would he do it differently. To Fenty, it was worth it. “I couldn’t imagine anything I would do for the rest of my life that would bring me as much value and personal satisfaction as being able to fix the city school system in the city I was born and raised.”
After losing the reelection, Fenty quickly recovered and immediately scheduled a meeting with his cabinet. Quoting again from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he told them, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But longevity has its place.” It was those last four words that stuck with Fenty. “I told them, ‘We could spend eight, 12 years in office where we hadn’t been able to contribute or do much but it wouldn’t be worth the four years we had where we were able to do some pretty remarkable things.”
Fenty concluded, “Here at Oberlin, I believe I got the seeds of that type of activism, that type of willingness to lay it all on the line, to give back to your community, to take courageous stances. As I speak to the next generation of Oberlin alumni, students, faculty – let me just encourage all of you to keep it up, to have a great year and as King said, to develop a kind of ‘dangerous unselfishness’ in whatever you do.”