Alan Ehrenhalt is a former executive editor of GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I guess I shouldn't be surprised when Adrian Fenty says his first priority as mayor of DC will be fixing the public schools. Mayors say that all the time now, and they nearly always get good press for it. The Washington Post has editorialized in support of Fenty's school-centered program, and adds that his desire to take personal control of the school system should be applauded.
Maybe I'm the only one not applauding. I understand perfectly well that the DC schools are in bad shape, and that improving them would be a terrific achievement for the city.
But it seems to me that in trumpeting his desire to focus on public education, Fenty is making the common mistake of seizing on the one problem that will be hardest for him to solve.
Inner-city schools are lagging everywhere in America. Despite two decades of effort, and many claims to the contrary, no one has figured out a solution to this dilemma. Consulting urban leaders from other parts of the country, as Fenty has been doing, will mostly just expose him to a wide variety of failed strategies.
And vowing to turn the schools around in four years -- desirable and important as that goal might be -- is creating a blueprint for civic disappointment when the years go by and things are essentially the same.
The truth is that any city faces a long list of tangible problems for which real solutions do exist and tangible progress can be made in a relatively short time. Transportation is one of them. Basic service delivery is another one. Even crime reduction offers a higher chance of payback than a long-term mayoral immersion in school reform.
I like it when somebody takes office as mayor in a big city, dedicates himself to working on a modest, tangible but tractable issue, then deals with it and moves on to something harder. It's actually a great way to succeed with the voters.
But not many of them do that. The natural instinct seems to be to zero in on the most difficult challenge with the longest odds on success. George Latimer, when he was mayor of St. Paul, once made the very wise comment that instead of seeking out problems, mayors should seek out opportunities. If Fenty followed Latimer's advice, he'd start with the merely difficult and move on later to the seemingly impossible.
But that's not what ambitious new mayors like to do, and it's generally not what the media praise them for. So I wish Mayor Fenty the best of luck. Maybe he'll come up with a school reform idea no one else has thought of. If so, I'll be very happy to have been proven wrong.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.