A summit on improving education in America this week gave one politician a chance to talk about an issue that may have cost him his re-election.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was ousted in a primary earlier this month, was a panelist at NBC's Education Nation summit, and didn't shy away from questions about his public schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, a polarizing figure in his re-election bid.
Hired by Fenty in 2007, Rhee was tasked with improving D.C.'s schools, the worst-performing in the nation. Her approach – dismissing hundreds of teachers and administrators who she said had performed poorly and closing 20 schools – sparked a special investigation and a political backlash.
But it was necessary, Fenty argued on Tuesday.
"We didn't know it was going to be politically costly," Fenty told NBC's Tom Brokaw at a panel focusing on giving all students a fair shot at succeeding in their education. "These are tough decisions, but we have got to do them; otherwise, this achievement gap is never going to be closed."
Fenty began his term in January 2007. At that time, he said, African-American students in D.C. were 70 percentage points behind white students in math. "We've closed that by 20 percentage points, which is a huge gain, but it still leaves us 50 percentage points behind," he said. "The greatest worry is that we're just not moving fast enough. If I could do anything over, I'd have moved even faster, to be honest with you."
Nationwide, nearly half of all black, Hispanic and Native American students do not graduate with their class at public high schools, and many drop out with less than two years of high school education.
"What are we saying to the kids and parents that we've tolerated this for so long?" Fenty asked. "There is no way to reverse the decades of neglect.
"It's time we did something about it," he added. "At the end of the day, politicians are going to have to make tough decisions and risk their political future because it's the right thing to do."