Questions For Adrian Fenty

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

Tuesday’s convocation by former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, OC ’92, is covered elsewhere in this paper. Along with his lecture in Finney Chapel, the illustrious speaker took audience questions and spent half an hour earlier in the day being interviewed by reporters from student journalism outlets like the ReviewThe Grape and WOBC. There was little time in either forum for in-depth or challenging questions, and for the sake of campus dialogue I thought I might pose some questions for Mayor Fenty (or should it be Professor Fenty?) in these pages. So, Mr. Mayor/Professor, here goes.

You have been an opponent of public employee unions, stating that “[Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker is right on substance” when it comes to collective bargaining. It’s perfectly understandable that when you’re seeing like a state, unions and other interest groups might appear little more than obstacles to successful governance, especially in a political system as captive to big money as ours is. At the same time, however, it’s hard to deny that most of the great progressive political achievements of the last century were made possible by the sweat and blood of union members. Does the thought of standing on the other side of the picket line from that legacy make you at all uneasy?

On a related note, your former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently found work as an education policy advisor to Tea Party-aligned Florida Governor Rick Scott. In fact, even in this era of extreme partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, conservatives have been eager to unite with Democrats behind education reform initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Given how quick Republicans have been to reject once-accepted ideas like cap-and-trade and the individual mandate as soon as Democrats embrace them, do you think there’s a reason elements of the education reform agenda like charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing are still so popular on the right?

As you may be aware, education reform has been a much-discussed topic at Oberlin of late. A panel on the subject is scheduled for next Tuesday, and last April our campus hosted a screening of Davis Guggenheim’s pro-reform documentary Waiting For “Superman,” an event I wrote about at the time in this newspaper. The part of the movie that most astonished me was when Guggenheim asserted that the overarching problems in impoverished neighborhoods should be blamed on the poor quality of their schools, and not the other way around. Do you agree? How would the education reform agenda on its own, without a more broad-based anti-poverty initiative, lead to widespread social justice in our inner cities?

I don’t want to seem as if I’m just mindlessly piling on; after all, the most I know about the challenges facing a large-city mayor is the story of fictional Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti in David Simon’s insightful HBO series The Wire. One of the problems Simon identified in the show was a focus on simple metrics like arrest rates and standardized test scores at the expense of the complex, long-term goals that should drive public policy — or as his characters would put it, “juking the stats.” Would you characterize the recent revelations about institutionalized cheating on standardized tests in some D.C. public schools during your tenure as a symptom of this mentality? What would you do, if anything, to change this dynamic and convince people that these issues are too complicated to be adequately summarized as a number rising or falling?

Finally, I’d like to move from Season 4 of The Wire to Season 5 and ask you not about education but rather about my own field, journalism. Michelle Rhee was famous for inviting news cameras to witness her personally fire teachers, unannounced and often mid-lesson, in front of a class full of students. I assume you’ve already faced questions about whether you think such behavior was appropriate and whether you think it contributed to your defeat in last year’s Democratic mayoral primary. But coming from a journalist, do you think that these news outlets were acting in keeping with our ostensible mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Hypothetically, if the superintendent of Oberlin City Schools started inviting Review reporters to witness similar antics at the expense of Oberlin’s public school teachers, should we go along with it? How would Upton Sinclair or H.L. Mencken have responded to Michelle Rhee?

On Tuesday, you implied that the reason for your defeat was a courageous willingness to step on powerful toes, alluding only in passing to the “divisive” issues that were raised in the contest between yourself and Vincent Gray. Since your stated philosophy of running government like a private business is shared by both George W. Bush and the Tea Party, hopefully you can forgive those who hear “divisive” as an echo of the right-wing “class warfare” mantra. Nobody should have to lecture a Democrat about the economic crisis this country has faced over the last few years because some of your role models were too desperate for better-looking numbers on their quarterly earnings reports — but if your goal is to bring that same spirit to the pursuit of higher test scores, you shouldn’t be surprised when you start losing Democratic primaries.