Apart From a Few Loud Protests, D.C. Quiet on Schools Plan
T he big protest rally was supposed to draw thousands of people, but only dozens showed up. The boycott was going to paralyze the school system, but hardly anyone noticed. The city sent top administrators to every neighborhood to conduct 23 simultaneous public hearings, and at some places, not a single person showed up -- not one.
When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed to shut down 23 of Washington's most egregiously underenrolled schools, knee-jerk politicians predictably behaved like those unscrupulous drivers who shout about whiplash after somebody glances their fender.
Ward 8 council member Marion Barry, still the reigning champion of winning time on the TV news, issued one outraged statement after another, showed up at every protest, and as late as Thursday, was on the tube railing against Rhee: "The chancellor's just being bullheaded. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"
Less than 24 hours later, a different Barry shook the mayor's hand and stepped before the cameras at a news conference announcing the final list of schools to be closed. "This is a historic day," the mayor for life said with a big smile. "Mayor Fenty took the bold action of making education number one." The closings -- the very same closings Barry had spent the previous two months slamming at every turn -- were suddenly an essential, empowering act of excellence.
"We have not a broken system, but a very, very, very broken system," Barry explained.
But wait -- weren't you just on the other side? Weren't you talking about how you, the parents and the whole city would fight to the end against shutting down 20 percent of the system?
"You're not going to satisfy everybody," Barry said. "Quite frankly, how we went through this was tame compared to what's happened when they did this in the rest of the country. People lost friendships behind it. But this is a victory for our children . . . I'm delighted to be able to join in this situation."
"I thought that was fascinating," Rhee told me after watching the Barry pivot. (Hey, she's new in town.)
All Fenty would say when I asked about Barry's latest switcheroo was that the former mayor had "a pretty different tone" now that he saw which way the wind was blowing.
The school closings are no mere breeze. They're the latest gust from a storm system composed of a mayor who won every precinct in the city and a chancellor who has no past and no great desire to have a future in the school superintendent business, credentials that buy an unusual amount of independence.
Rhee and Fenty pushed through the closings of 18 schools this year and another five in the next three years with vastly less opposition than there appeared to be -- "certainly less than the media portrayed," Rhee says.
The news feeds on conflict. When opposition isn't huge, it is sometimes made to look as if it is. At Thursday's rally, TV camera guys coaxed protesters to move closer together so the on-air picture would look like a substantial gathering.