Next week, voters in the District of Columbia will go to the polls to pick their Democratic mayoral candidate, and nothing short of the future of D.C.'s public school system -- a major step forward or setback for reforming America's education system -- is staked on the outcome of the election.
Over the past three and a half years, the District of Columbia Public School system has undergone radical changes, and for the first time in decades, D.C. students are beginning to gain access to a high-quality education. That progress is attributable directly to the current mayor, Adrian Fenty.
However, despite the major strides forward, polls show that Fenty may be thrown out, and along with him all the progress that has been made. That would be a giant mistake.
Such a loss would condemn District students to a future filled with poor schools and ineffective teachers. Moreover it would also send a signal to the rest of the nation that voters are not willing to stand by those who push for full-scale (and sometimes unpopular) education reform, and embolden those forces that resist any change.
Since coming into office in January 2007, Fenty has made improving the DC public school system his number one priority, and over the last three and a half years his administration has made several major accomplishments that were once thought impossible.
For years, DC students performed abysmally on District and national assessments, and the gap between DC students and their more affluent peers across the Potomac seemed insurmountable.
Yet, under Fenty's watch, student achievement has begun to go up dramatically. DC middle and high school students in testing grades have improved their performance on the District's assessments by an average of 17 points in Math and 14 points in Reading. While there is still along way to go before every student is excelling, students are moving in the right direction.
The administration also was successful in negotiating one of the most progressive contracts with the Washington Teachers Union. The contract rewards teachers with top-in-the-nation salaries, offers teachers top-of-the-line development programs, and helps ensure that there is a quality teacher in every classroom by ending the "job for life" mentality that has pervaded many districts. The contract is quickly becoming a model other districts around the country want to emulate.
Finally, Fenty's commitment to reforming DC public schools was the fundamental reasons why the District was one of 10 winners in President Obama's Race to the Top competition. Washington will get up to $75 million in needed education dollars. Those much-needed funds wouldn't be coming to the District without Fenty's aggressive approach.
Yet just as the reforms instituted under Fenty are beginning to take hold, they are at risk of being completely unraveled. Fenty's challenger does not share the same enthusiasm for transforming the D.C. public school system, and there's a real risk that the system will revert to its previous state should Fenty lose the primary.
That would be tragic for Washington's students, and it shouldn't be allowed to come to pass.
Mayor Fenty was elected on a promise to transform the D.C. public school system and give Washington's students the type of high-quality education they deserve. Doing so has not been easy, and during his tenure Fenty has made some tough choices that have not always been popular.
But they were the right choices, and they have yielded strong results for Washington's students. Changing course now would be amount to a rejection of that progress.
Moreover, it would seriously undermine other reform efforts around the nation. President Obama's Race to the Top competition has encouraged lawmakers around the nation to undertake challenging legislative efforts, particularly around charter schools and teacher tenure. While these initiatives are in the best interests of students, they are fiercely opposed by teachers unions and other forces opposed to changes in the status quo. A loss will only embolden these forces to stand firm, knowing that voters won't support candidates who want to improve the system on election day.
We must ensure that doesn't happen and that D.C.'s public schools continue on the path toward great schools for all children. Mayor Fenty is the right choice to keep the system going in the right direction.
Joe Williams is Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform.
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