Mayor Blackberry's Back to School Adventure
(First in a series of Monday items following the takeover of the D.C. school system by Mayor Adrian Fenty. In addition to today's installment and yesterday's column, please check out the investigative series on the D.C. schools that began in Sunday's Post and continues through Tuesday.)
Time was that the model of a big-city mayor was the chunky ward-heeler who buddied up to the unions and contractors alike, regularly walked a well-trod path from one ethnic eatery to the next, and made sure to keep uniformed employees and teachers firmly on his side. Great--Fiorello LaGuardia, Richard Daley--and bad--Frank Hague of Jersey City, Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia--these were the reformers and the machine pols who seemed as if they could rule forever.
The latest fashion in mayors is one that borrows from the street-level, constituent service character of that earlier era but marries that populist passion with modern media technology. Washington's Adrian Fenty has clearly modeled himself after the crew of mayors who weld themselves to the Crackberry, show up at nearly every homicide scene, monitor the police radio so they know where the TV news live trucks will be on any given night, and make themselves seen at neighborhood meetings of every possible stripe.
Here are some choice descriptions from a recent New Yorker magazine piece:
"Sometimes the Mayor seems to think that he can wrest the ideal city into existence through sheer kinetic energy. ... [G]overning looks a lot like campaigning. The Mayor spends a great deal of time away from his office, appearing at half a dozen events most days, and holding multiple press conferences.... In times of crisis, his talent for connecting with people is a boon, but at other times it can appear contrived."
He "appointed new people--many of whom were very talented--to government jobs, and assigned these issues to them. But he wanted a signature initiative, and he decided to seek mayoral control of the public-school system...."
"...the Mayor is fanatic about his workout regimen...."
A New Yorker profile of Fenty, already? No, a profile of Antonio Villaraigosa, the more experienced mayor of Los Angeles, one of several big-city mayors Fenty has made a point of visiting and studying as he has engaged in his best practices tour of the nation--a process that may have contributed to the too-literal adoption of some other mayors' strategies and policies.
Los Angeles's first Hispanic mayor in more than a century has, like Michael Bloomberg in New York and Richard Daley the Younger in Chicago, tried to make a takeover of the public schools a centerpiece of his reform efforts. But the law in California--along with considerable opposition to his plan-- made it impossible for Villaraigosa to achieve anything close to the power that those other mayors have won. Fenty is already well ahead of his Los Angeles colleague in wresting control of the schools from the elected board that has had political authority over the system for many years. But Fenty too has faced both popular opposition and legal challenges.
Opponents of the Fenty takeover sought to put the schools control issue to the voters in a referendum, but the mayor outmaneuvered the anti-takeover crowd, and a D.C. Superior Court judge last week put the final kibosh on the referendum movement. Fenty values speed, deliberate action and competent management so highly that he believes the voters will support him even if he didn't specifically lay out his takeover plan in his campaign last fall. Fenty has been eager to complete his schools takeover soon enough so he could make a noticeable difference in the opening of school this fall. That would likely entail picking a new schools chief before August.
At this point, with the D.C. Council, Congress and apparently most of the voters either on Fenty's side or at least willing to give this a try (on the theory that nothing else has worked), Fenty is right to argue that his landslide victory gives him a mandate to make some dramatic changes.
But it's also true that the public schools are virtually impervious to the kind of change that comes far more easily in areas of city government where management makes all the difference: Either the traffic signals get synchronized or they don't. Either the snow gets plowed or it doesn't. Either crime drops or residents get scared. But schools are different: No matter what Fenty does, no matter whom he hires, the great majority of the kids in the D.C. schools will be underperforming youngsters coming largely from families with little record of academic devotion or achievement, with a disproportionate number of kids living in poverty or with parents in prison or with families ravaged by drug abuse.
New structures, new managers and new resources can and should get the buildings rehabbed, the physical systems repaired, the books delivered on time and the quality of hiring improved. That's where Fenty's control can make a big difference. But that doesn't translate neatly into a classroom experience so altered that one could expect very different results from students. Schools have become far more than transmitters of information or concepts. They have been saddled with all manner of social work and health care responsibilities for which teachers and administrators are ill-equipped. Nothing in Fenty's vision promises to change that essential truth.
Fenty probably would have been better off politically choosing a different focus for his big first-year initiative. But instead he picked the single most nagging and maddening problem in the District. For that, he certainly deserves kudos. But that shouldn't make us expect miracles: In the field of public education in a big city, no mayor has pulled one of those out of his hat.
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