Where Fenty Went Wrong

Ta-Nehisi writes what I think is a fair critique of how Fenty lost: "A lot has been made of the role of race in this campaign, and the sense that Fenty is the tool of white interlopers seeking to turn D.C. into Seattle. Fear of the oncoming white horde of gentrifiers is old in D.C. and I do not doubt that the paranoia was an integral part of the political landscape. But having understood that landscape, it's a politician job to navigate it. "

But still, I wonder if that was really possible. New York's school reforms have been considerably stalled by the teacher's and principals unions, but those obstacles are less noticeable because the schools weren't nearly so bad to begin with. Parts of the system were abysmal, but there were also parts that worked relatively well that the reformers could build on. In DC, nothing worked at all; the schools were doing more babysitting than teaching. (We can argue about why the problems existed--but if 8% of your eighth graders are reading at grade level, I think we can agree that the system is not performing its allegedly core mission of educating the city's children).

Arguably, a system like that simply requires radical reform. If you try to start small, the changes you make will be overwhelmed by the mostly intact institution, which will exert its powerful influence to neutralize your reforms. Dysfunctional institutions have what you might think of as a powerful immune system--indeed, you could argue that they're so dysfunctional precisely because they're so good at repelling invaders.

That's why radical reformers so often end up vilified (and frankly, so often end up making some colossal bloomers; institutions are complicated, and reformer's prescriptions are never as complex as the institution they are trying to change). What deal could Rhee have possibly made the teacher's unions that they would have accepted, and that would actually have given her latitude to try to make radical improvement in reading and math scores? New York has been trying to get rid of its rubber rooms for a long, long time; after most of a decade and a scathing article by Steven Brill, the famously pugnacious Joel Klein finally managed to do so. The result? The teachers will be doing clerical make-work, at full salary, instead. The city is still not noticeably closer to a reasonable process for getting rid of dangerous or incompetent teachers.

That doesn't matter quite so much in a relatively functional system that is comparatively flush with cash from taxing Wall Street salaries. They can afford to float problem teachers in addition to the ones still in the classrooms. In DC, where the tax base is less robust, and the system is in much worse shape, that's not really an option.

One can argue that Fenty and Rhee could have been less abrasive, and indeed, that's true. But the personality required to implement these kinds of reforms over the range of the groups whose interests are harmed, is not the personality type that is really good at soothing feathers. If you care too much about what people think of you, you're probably not a very good reformer.

And I'm not really sure how much the anger of the teacher's unions would have been soothed if they'd just been a little nicer about it. Or of the taxi drivers, who have experienced real economic harm from the demise of the absurd "zone" system that used to result in me throwing money at the driver and jumping out while he was stopped at a light, rather than allow him to drive me across U Street, where depositing me on the other side would earn him several dollars more. (Needless to say, if you simply asked to be deposited on the south side, the drivers frequently developed situational deafness.) It was a terrible system, but it was better for the drivers; their core beef is that driving a taxi is now less lucrative, not that Fenty didn't say "pretty please" before he did it.

So while I think Fenty and Rhee were at least occasionally needlessly abrasive, I'm not sure how much difference that really made. Handling the politics better would have meant doing fewer things that would take longtime benefits from politically active groups. That's what worries people about Gray. Consensus politics too often means avoiding hard choices. And you cannot fix the city's problems without making those choices.