Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 5, 2019
Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Lobbyists mobilized quickly when they learned the D.C. Council would be proposing legislation to subject the city’s charter schools to freedom-of-information laws. The day before the bill was released in mid-March, charter leaders were armed with a list of talking points divided into two categories: “soft response” and “harder-edge messaging.”
The “soft response” included points like: “this bill cares more about paperwork than school performance” and “devoting schools’ resources to yet even more compliance will divert from more important student needs, such as mental health counseling.” The “harder-edge messaging” went further, charging the legislation with “bureaucracy-building and political playback masquerading as watchdogging.”
The legislation is intended to let parents, teachers, and journalists access more information about the schools’ internal operations, and it comes on the heels of a series of scandals that fomented public distrust. But the talking points encouraged charter advocates to tell their councilmembers that it’s insulting to suggest that the schools need additional oversight. “We resent the implication that the hundreds of community and parent volunteers who serve on charter schools’ boards are not putting students’ needs first,” the talking points read. “The real agenda that needs uncovering is the union strategy to force charter schools to behave exactly like the school district bureaucracy.”
This coordinated pushback didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, D.C. taxpayers might be surprised to learn they helped fund the lobbying themselves. Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself “the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,” more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.
While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS. Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ “voluntary student payments,” totaling more than $340,000.
In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate. In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs. A July 2018 invoice that FOCUS sent to one charter leader said that the school’s payments “have already had an impact” in 2018, securing a “reduction in unreasonable monitoring and oversight” by “blocking or fixing five major pieces of legislation.” FOCUS’ executive director thanked the school leader for their annual donation, which ensures “a strong, steady, and committed” voice “to preserve your autonomy, increase your funding and improve your access to facilities and government services.”
Documents obtained by City Paper show that these two organizations produced the talking points from earlier this year. But they’re not the only players on the charter advocacy stage, and the D.C. Council’s charter transparency bill is not the first to hit a hard wall of lobbying resistance. Under DC Code Section 1-1161.01, lobbying is defined as “communicating directly with any official in the legislative or executive branch of the District government with the purpose of influencing any legislative action or an administrative decision.” And for more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations, so leaders can better focus on teaching and learning.
For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away. Now, in the face of questions and community frustration, lawmakers are again under pressure to act. But if city leaders are going to bring newfound transparency to the charter world, they’re going to have to overcome a formidable influence machine with a long history of winning fights in D.C.
Many factors have aided the local charter advocacy apparatus over the past two decades—from a struggling traditional school district that drove parents away, to a weakened teachers’ union consumed with its own problems, to a conflict-averse Council that largely welcomed the relinquishment of school oversight duties.
But charter advocates’ biggest asset has been the School Reform Act—federal legislation enacted in 1996 authorizing the creation of charter schools in the District. Since its passage, the law has been used to ward off attempts by local lawmakers who sought more control over the public charter schools they were funding.
Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that “for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.” Half of all students dropped out before graduation.
That same year, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), was elected Speaker of the House and soon announced his goal to improve D.C. schools. He pledged to transform the city into “an urban jewel” and tasked another Republican in his inner-circle, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.), with drafting education policy recommendations.
The bill Gunderson put forth originally included both the creation of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, but it soon became clear that vouchers would never garner enough Democratic support in the Senate, and were ultimately stripped. Charters were an easier sell: The nation’s first charter school had launched in Minnesota in 1992, and plenty of Democrats, including then-president Bill Clinton, were enthusiastic supporters of the idea.
Many D.C. residents balked at Congress’ actions. When Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.
Josephine Baker, board chair and executive director for the city’s charter authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board, from 1996 through 2011, reflected on this process in her 2014 memoir: “The way [D.C. charters were established] left a terrible taste in the mouths of many life-long and civically engaged Washingtonians. It also represented a selling out of sorts to some community members who felt Republicans in Congress were acting as political imperialists.”
These misgivings over home rule did not stop charters from claiming legal independence, however. Professional advocates worked for years to convince the public and elected officials that D.C. lawmakers were legally unable to regulate their city’s charter sector if doing so conflicted in any way with the letter or spirit of Congress’ law. As Baker put it, “We used the charter law, deemed one of the best in the nation by the Center for Education Reform, as our shield.”
FOCUS, the charter advocacy group, has been the driving force behind these efforts. FOCUS was founded in 1996 by Malcolm Peabody, a Republican real estate developer who had strong political relationships in Congress and the local business community. A quarter-century earlier, Peabody helped pioneer the very idea of housing vouchers for low-income renters, when he served a stint under his brother, the governor of Massachusetts, and then later at HUD under President Richard Nixon. Peabody’s belief in vouchers for housing paved the way to supporting vouchers for schooling, but he understood the lack of political support for the concept in D.C., so limited FOCUS’ focus to charters.
“We were interested in vouchers before Congress passed the law, but when it became clear that charters were a better way to go, we shifted over,” he tells City Paper.
From 1998 to 2015 FOCUS was led by Robert Cane, a former attorney and school principal from Virginia drawn to the nascent charter movement in D.C. “Robert Cane was a force,” says Kathy Patterson, D.C.’s auditor who served as the Ward 3 representative on the Council and chaired its education committee. “[Cane] and Mike Peabody, they were the ones who convinced everyone that there was no authority locally to legislate charters, and I think that’s been a myth that’s been around since 1996. They convinced councilmembers of that, they convinced people in my office [at the D.C. auditor’s] of that. I guess if you just say it over and over and over again for long enough then people will believe it.”
While FOCUS has long advocated on behalf of nearly all charter schools in the District, its leaders are quick to emphasize that it is not, in fact, a membership-based organization. “We asked charter schools to support our advocacy efforts, but we never wanted to be a membership organization because [they] can’t act as quickly and as decisively as non-membership organizations,” Cane tells City Paper. “And we wanted the freedom to disagree with charter schools.”
But a membership-based charter advocacy organization would eventually come on the scene, with the advent of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools in 2004. Its founders wanted to give black-led charters a more organized voice in city politics, as FOCUS’ leaders were predominantly white. “School founders and school leaders wanted to distance themselves from external advocacy groups that had their own agendas, but they wanted to improve their well-being through democratically arrived at positions,” Ramona Edelin, the group’s executive director, explains.
Still, many charters were active in both groups, and FOCUS and the Association often worked together, sometimes with the assistance of the Public Charter School Board, to fight back on legislative efforts they felt might encroach on charter freedom.
“Autonomy is everything to charter schools, and autonomy is basically nothing to the government, and that’s really the crux of it,” Cane says.
From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an “insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.” Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to “keep [their] notebooks open” to conceal the lack of books. At another charter closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had “awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.”
In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.
“Such legislation is completely unnecessary and is antithetical to the idea of charter schools,” Cane argued at the time. He and other advocates successfully rebuffed the idea.
Politically there were tensions from the get-go, too. During the mayoral election in 1998, one candidate ran on a charter school moratorium, two others ran on platforms to limit the number of new charters issued annually, and a fourth candidate, Anthony Williams, ran on a charter-supportive platform but said there needed to be more careful monitoring. Williams won.
In 2000, the D.C. financial control board authorized Mayor Williams to manage surplus school property, news that charter advocates cheered, as they long suspected D.C. officials had been denying them access to vacant school buildings to stymie their growth. Advocates hoped Williams would be easier to work with.
But it didn’t take long for charter advocates to get frustrated with Williams too, and charge his administration with facility sabotage. “We have a joke we always say [at charter school coalition meetings],” one leader told City Paper in 2001. “You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
FOCUS leaders decided to take matters into their own hands, by leveraging their power on Capitol Hill. In 2004, at the urging of FOCUS, charter supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) slipped an amendment into the D.C. Appropriations Act requiring D.C. officials to give charter schools a “right of first offer”—instead of a “preference”—to purchase or lease vacant D.C. school buildings at a 25 percent discount. Remarkably, Sen. Landrieu did not consult with any D.C. officials before making this change.
Local leaders—again including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—were outraged by this federal brazenness.
“We’ve now gotten them very angry at us, and I’m sorry about that, but each one of those councilmembers has been advocates themselves—some of them very successful at it—and I think they would have done the very same thing in our position,” Peabody told the Washington Post at the time. Perhaps predictably, the maneuver set up future conflicts. When the city opted to hang on to some empty properties for future use rather than quickly sell or lease them to charters, charter advocates responded by accusing D.C. officials of violating the law that the charter advocates themselves helped re-write behind city leaders’ backs. Such criticisms continue to this day: A video released this past summer by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools featured Edelin, the group’s director, condemning city leaders for failing to give charters a “right of first offer” to buildings.
D.C. lawmakers have tried to regulate the charter sector over the years but are usually unsuccessful, like in 2006 when the majority of the Council backed legislation to improve open meeting laws. These laws dictate what exactly regular residents can access when it comes to the decision-making of public bodies.
“In our estimation, the District of Columbia has the most outdated, ineffective open meetings statute in the country,” the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press testified at the time, urging D.C. “to catch up with the rest of the country.”
Part of the reforms would have subjected charter school boards to the city’s open meetings law. The then-chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Vincent Orange, argued that given how much public funding the schools receive, and because they would not exist without government-issued charters, they should not be exempt.
As The Common Denominator, a now-defunct local news organization, reported at the time, advocates like Edelin and Cane were some of the most ardently opposed to the bill, and ultimately succeeded in getting the government to back off open meetings for charter schools.
Charter advocates succeeded again two years later in 2008, when two councilmembers, Chairman Vince Gray and Ward 6 representative Tommy Wells, introduced legislation to increase government oversight over the city’s charters, and add new rules restricting how easily new schools could open or expand. Existing law has grown “outdated and proven ineffective to ensure the Council’s ability to provide effective oversight,” Gray argued back then. Wells stressed that there was too little coordination between the Council and the charter sector, which spends public funds.
FOCUS launched a robust campaign against the proposed legislation, recruiting parents, teachers, and students to lobby local lawmakers and deliver a pro-charter petition signed by nearly 6,000 people. The bill died, and it marked one of FOCUS’ biggest political victories to date.
“It’s hard to say exactly why it failed because so much of this stuff goes on behind closed doors,” says Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for D.C. schools. “My guess is there were all sorts of big time business people involved.”
Whoever killed the 2008 bill, things were only about to ramp up for D.C. charter advocacy. That year, largely thanks to the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, FOCUS started raising a lot more money. At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000, according to tax filings. A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016. Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.
As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later, FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations. According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017, and $165,000 in 2018.
In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.
Another major force aiding D.C’s charter sector has been CityBridge, a foundation headed by local philanthropist Katherine Bradley. A 2015 City Paper cover story detailed Bradley’s unique influence over school policy in Washington, though the full extent of her advocacy is hard to track, as she has never registered lobbying activities with the city. “CityBridge is very familiar with D.C. lobbying laws, and our attorneys have told us that we—like hundreds of other charitable organizations in the District—do not need to register,” Bradley says.
“The threshold for registering is quite low. If you’re aware of anyone making lobbying contacts the odds are very high that they should be registered,” says Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for consumer protections.
Yet another player entered the charter advocacy scene in 2015, with the founding of Democrats for Education Reform DC, or DFER-DC. Democrats for Education Reform, a major national backer of charter schools, is actually a constellation of different entities: a political action committee, a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Education Reform Now, and a second 501(c)4 nonprofit—controlled by the same people—called Education Reform Now Advocacy. This split structure enables the group to lobby and spend vast quantities of money in elections. The national organization is further divided into state chapters, of which DFER-DC is one.
Most of DFER-DC’s political spending comes in the form of independent expenditures—hiring paid canvassers, sending political mailings, and running TV, radio, and digital ads. In 2018 alone, DFER-DC raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in such funds, including nearly $200,000 from Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress tied to the Walton Family Foundation. By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election.
The Washington Teachers’ Union, by contrast, spent just $2,100 in direct campaign contributions in 2018, and nothing in independent expenditures.
A woman named Catharine Bellinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.
In one email dated May 2016 with the subject-line “DFER’s top priority this budget cycle,” Bellinger wrote to At-Large Councilmember and education committee Chairman David Grosso asking him to press Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on increasing funds for charter school facilities. “I’d like to ask you to consider personally urging Chairman Mendelson to make this [2.2%] increase,” Bellinger wrote. “My sense is that a call from you, as Ed Committee chair, would really make the difference. Is that something you might consider?” In another email sent in June 2018, a month before moving to Texas, Bellinger wrote Grosso to say, “I’d love to get together with you for breakfast or a coffee to hear about your priorities as Ed Committee chair for the next session as well as share some thoughts we have on the proposed education research entity”—referring to legislation the Council was considering at that time.
“All of my advocacy efforts on behalf of ERN [referring to Education Reform Now] were in compliance with DC Code for nonprofit organizations,” Bellinger tells City Paper.
Josh Henderson, a political consultant and the former government relations liaison for the public charter school board, then took over as acting DFER-DC director. Despite also engaging lawmakers over legislative issues, he too never registered as a city lobbyist. When asked about this, Henderson cited a provision of the DC Code—noting a lobbying exemption applicable to nonprofit social welfare organizations—to explain why DFER’s (c)3 activities would not need to be registered.
Yet it’s not clear this provision is meant to exempt DC Education Reform Now from disclosure. “This is an obviously inaccurate reading of the law,” says Public Citizen’s Holman. “All of us regular nonprofits who spend $250 or more on lobbying the D.C. government must register and disclose our activities.” Other (c)3 organizations that register their lobbying include Jews United for Justice, the Nature Conservancy, and even FOCUS. “As nonprofits, we are given a break in the lobbyist registration fee,” Holman adds.
Henderson tells City Paper that their (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, is a registered lobbying entity in D.C. and they hire the firm Arent Fox to lobby on specific legislation. Records show that the registration occurred in 2018, and between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, Education Reform Now Advocacy paid Arent Fox $72,919.00 for the “promotion of policies benefiting public education, particularly charter schools.” Arent Fox earned an additional $63,150.00 during the first three months of 2019.
In July, DFER-DC hired Jessica Giles to serve as its next deputy director. Giles came directly from Grosso’s office, serving the last four years on the education committee.
Outside of Wilson building lobbying and campaign expenditures, DFER works to cultivate relationships with political leaders by hosting them at upscale private events. For example, public records requests made by City Paper reveal that DFER invited Grosso and his wife to sit at one of its two “VIP tables” at a Howard Theatre gala in 2016. “[We] are assembling a small group of education, civic, and philanthropic leaders to join us,” Bellinger wrote in her invitation.
The next year DFER invited Grosso and his wife to another gala, this time at the Ritz-Carlton, where they had a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. Bellinger likewise invited Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to join her for a dinner event in 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton, again at a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. And in April 2018 she extended yet another invitation to Mendelson for a Walton-sponsored table, this time at a gala hosted at the Newseum.
In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools. But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.
Sometimes this means D.C.’s charter school board coordinates with private advocacy groups in unusual ways. In 2015, for example, according to a public records request, the board’s general counsel emailed Irene Holtzman—who had recently taken over for Cane as FOCUS’ executive director—to strategize about securing changes in a language access bill the Council was considering. “Since we still have two bites at this, in my opinion, what would be helpful now is for the Council to hear from FOCUS and more charter schools,” the general counsel wrote. She encouraged FOCUS to submit testimony, “citing its position on autonomy as it has in the past on issues such as this that try to loop charter schools in with DCPS.”
A subsequent fight over school discipline reform reveals a more extraordinary example of charter board advocacy. In the fall of 2017 Grosso was gearing up to introduce legislation that would set legal limits on how schools could discipline students. Among other things, the bill would ban most suspensions through eighth grade and cap the number of days a child could be suspended in a year.
In October 2017, according to an email obtained by City Paper, charter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill. Pearson also copied his director of government relations, Drew Snyder, and Holtzman from FOCUS.
“As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school,” Pearson wrote. “We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.” (Bold lettering matches Pearson’s original email.)
He urged charter leaders to contact Grosso’s office. “Many of you are busy with the day-to-day operations of your school but we need you to share your perspective during any and all meetings or in writing if necessary,” he wrote, adding that Snyder and Holtzman are both available to provide “information, or assistance in preparing testimony, talking points, or written submissions.”
If the call to action were not explicit enough, Pearson ended his email by requesting charter leaders “let Drew or Irene know” if they can submit testimony or attend the next Council meeting on the legislation.
Pearson acknowledges that as the city’s sole charter school authorizer, making such requests could place undue pressure on the schools he’s charged with regulating. He also notes that not all charter schools opposed Grosso’s legislation like he did.
“I don’t think I’ve ever button-holed a single school and said, ‘You need to do this,’” he tells City Paper. “Because to me that would go beyond what’s appropriate given I’m the authorizer and I know schools might feel like they need to do that to please me.” It would cross a line, he says, if he asked an individual school leader to testify, or “if I was somehow showing that we were keeping track, like here’s a list of the leaders who signed up [to speak].”
While Pearson says there have been in-person meetings where he’s encouraged school leaders to “make their voices heard” on other legislative matters, the school discipline bill is the only example he can think of where he sent an email out like that. He thought the bill represented a “five-alarm fire.”
When City Paper asked Holtzman why she didn’t just send that advocacy blast herself, she explained she felt charter leaders would be more likely to open the email and act if it was sent by Pearson. “I think Scott’s intent was to amplify my message because the truth is … I’m their friend, maybe a critical friend, but I’m not their auth[orizer],” she said. “And I said to Scott… I didn’t think at the time we were going to get a ton of traction, I think Scott was like, ‘If I send out an email, they open emails that come from Scott Pearson.’”
The lines between the two organizations have been close in other ways. The charter board’s second-in-command from January 2012 up until this past June, Naomi DeVeaux, had come from FOCUS. “She was my right-hand person,” Cane says. Other FOCUS alums would go on to lead different parts of D.C.’s educational establishment, like Erika Wadlington, who led advocacy and outreach at FOCUS and later went on to direct the Council’s education committee.
Cane emphasizes that there were times when the charter authorizer took positions that FOCUS felt encroached on charter autonomy, and FOCUS would make their concerns known. Still, Cane “was very close” with Pearson. “I would say there’s an attempt on both sides to cooperate, a close working relationship, because both PCSB and FOCUS are interested in the survival of the public charter school movement,” he says.
Holtzman agrees there have been times when FOCUS and the charter school board were not perfectly aligned, but says she thinks “Scott and the PCSB are like the authoritarian dad … and I might be like the cool aunt … But we’re all part of one family and we all play really different roles.” (Holtzman abruptly left FOCUS at the end of June.)
Pearson recognizes that his predecessor, Josephine Baker, was less engaged in advocacy, but suggests that was easier to do when the charter sector’s market-share was smaller. Today nearly half of all public schools students in D.C. attend charters.
Pearson says he personally sees political advocacy as an essential part of his job. “To be an effective authorizer doesn’t just mean doing a great job of oversight of schools, it also means being an advocate so the schools are operating in an environment that allows them to thrive,” he explains. And unlike the DC Public Schools chancellor, who works for the mayor, Pearson and his colleagues can publicly criticize the executive branch.
Traditional public schools have advocates too, but they’ve struggled and have very little money.
“I remember the charter board as kind of a non-entity,” says Gina Arlotto, who in the mid-2000s led an advocacy group for D.C.’s traditional public schools, called Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast. “They left the heavy lifting to FOCUS.” Arlotto’s now-defunct organization took a critical stance on charters. It formed around 2003, and Arlotto says many community members were not receptive to their efforts. “It was sad we couldn’t get more people to just see what we were trying to do,” she says. “We wanted people to look at charters and be a little skeptical to protect the public investment.”
In the fall of 2004, their group filed a lawsuit alleging that top city officials had neglected their duty to the traditional public schools and were violating their constitutional obligations by spending so much money to advance school choice. “Robert Cane hated us, we got into it with him a bunch of times,” recalls Arlotto. “He’d call us ‘losers,’ ‘racist,’ tell us we’re never going to win.”
They didn’t win, as their case was dismissed in 2006 for lack of standing, and the group stopped organizing in 2009. And unlike in other cities, where teacher unions have played an active role in slowing charter school growth, the Washington Teachers’ Union has been politically weakened for years, following an embezzlement scandal where union leaders diverted more than $2.5 million in membership dues.
“They had scandals, they were in disarray, we were lucky in that sense that we didn’t have to spend time on them,” says Cane.
These groups form a stark contrast with education reform-backed parent advocacy. One of the newest groups to emerge on the charter advocacy side is Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, or PAVE, which trains local parents to advocate for school reform. It has quickly grown into a powerful force with deep pockets in the city.
PAVE was founded in 2016 by Maya Martin Cadogan, through an education reform-backed “entrepreneur-in-residence” program. She had previously worked at two local charter schools, and served on the DFER-DC advisory board.
With a first-year budget of $450,000, PAVE had the early financial backing of groups like CityBridge, the Walton Family Foundation, and DFER. By 2018, its budget had increased to $1.2 million, and today has 11 full-time staffers. While charter parents were its sole focus in year one, it’s since expanded to parents in both sectors.
Last December, the group held its inaugural PAVE Parent Power Gala at District Winery in the Navy Yard, where Grosso was awarded the “Parent PowerED Policymaker Award.” The event had many high-dollar sponsors, including Katherine Bradley and her husband who contributed $25,000, the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $10,000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $5,000, and Pearson of the charter school board, who donated $2,500.
Since its founding, PAVE has also organized an annual “Parent Voice and Choice Week” where it hosts catered meetings between advocates and lawmakers at the Council. This past year parent leaders met with 11 elected officials and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. Advocates ended the week with a reception co-sponsored by PAVE, DFER, FOCUS, and the Bradleys.
In June 2018, Valerie Jablow, a DC Public Schools parent and charter critic, filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, raising concerns that PAVE staff were engaged in unregistered lobbying; she noted they join parents in their meetings with lawmakers. “My complaint is not to indict the work of PAVE or anyone else for that matter, but to ensure that our laws are followed for lobbyists,” she wrote in a subsequent email to the agency. “In this case, pretending PAVE is just a group of parent volunteers specifically disadvantages actual volunteer parents like me, who approach elected officials on their own or as the unpaid representatives of groups, like PTAs, that are also unpaid and 100 percent volunteer. This is why, in fact, we have lobbying laws that define who a lobbyist is—to level the playing field to ensure those with money do not have disproportionate power.”
Holman, of Public Citizen, explains that one of the more difficult aspects of enforcing lobbying laws—both in Congress and on the local level—is monitoring who should be registered in the first place. “If you don’t register no one is going to know what you’re up to, and the way this is policed is often through self-policing,” he says. “So when I realize that I’m in a lobbying meeting with other people who aren’t registered, it’s up to me to file a complaint so the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability can pursue an investigation and even levy fines for violating the law.”
This past April, the agency’s director Brent Wolfingbarger wrote Jablow to say they had conducted a preliminary investigation and were dismissing her complaint as they found insufficient evidence to support the claim that PAVE staff should register as lobbyists. Wolfingbarger emphasized that all PAVE staffers did was set up meetings between parents and lawmakers, but never communicated with lawmakers about legislative issues themselves.
Yet emails unearthed from a public records request paint a different picture—one in which PAVE staff also meet and converse with lawmakers and their staffers alone. In one email dated Aug. 6, 2018, Kerry Savage, PAVE’s associate director of policy and advocacy wrote to the Council’s education committee director, Akeem Anderson, to say, “As we discussed, I’d love to grab coffee to learn more about you and your work. I know Councilmember Grosso shares many of PAVE’s policy priorities, including mental health supports and transparent funding, and I’d love to discuss potential opportunities to partner together.” Emails show Savage and Anderson scheduled a meeting at the Wilson Building on Aug. 8.
About two months later, Anderson emailed Savage to say, “We should grab [sic] catch up soon. Are you available Friday or sometime next week?” The next month Savage emailed Anderson asking him to “let me know if there are any good days for you to chat in the next couple weeks and I’ll compare with my schedule.” Roughly a month after that, Anderson sent an email connecting Savage with Katrina Forrest, the deputy chief of staff in Grosso’s office. “I want to connect you with Katrina in our office to discuss School Based Mental Health and our budget priorities as we move into the next Council Period,” he wrote. “Hopefully you two can find time to connect soon.” Savage wrote back to both staffers and said, “Katrina, I’d love to talk soon about our shared priorities. Is there a good time for you this week? Otherwise happy to connect after the holidays.”
“No PAVE staff have discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one with [council] staff, and our staff, myself included, do not engage in lobbying,” Cadogan tells City Paper over email.
City Paper asked Anderson if he ever discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one during his meetings and conversations with Savage. “Councilmember Grosso and staff met with and provided all relevant information about our meetings with parent advocates and staff of PAVE to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which has concluded its report,” spokesperson Matthew Nocella wrote in response.
In July, Jablow attended BEGA’s monthly board meeting to raise her concerns, and call for a continued investigation. Wolfingbarger insisted again that all PAVE staff has done is schedule meetings for parents—nothing more. “PAVE does the organizing of the meetings, but doesn’t actually present arguments or try to persuade,” he said, in an audio recording of the meeting.
Wolfingbarger tells City Paper his team found no evidence that PAVE met one-on-one with councilmembers or their staff. He did not respond to a voicemail and three follow-up emails with City Paper’s questions regarding details about their investigation, including the time period BEGA’s team studied, and whether their search involved a review of Council communications, like email.
The School Reform Act has protected charter schools against city interference for years, but signs are emerging that this legal armor is starting to corrode.
That’s in part due to a failed federal lawsuit brought in 2014 alleging D.C. had illegally underfunded charter schools by hundreds of millions of dollars, in violation of the School Reform Act. The Association and two local charter schools were named plaintiffs, and FOCUS helped finance the litigation.
D.C.’s then-Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the case should be dismissed on the basis that “these are distinctively local decisions.” He emphasized that the School Reform Act does not “relieve the Council of its Home Rule Act authority” to determine school funding.
A federal judge denied Nathan’s dismissal request, but in 2017, she ruled against the plaintiffs. The charter groups appealed, and this past July, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case for lack of federal jurisdiction.
“I think the winds have changed,” says Patterson, the auditor. “I think the litigation is informing sitting policymakers that they can do what they think is right and not run into legal problems because Congress enacted it.”
“I think for a long time the Council just really drank the Kool-Aid about charters being self-regulating and the market taking care of problems,” adds Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group for school facilities.
Aside from the lawsuit, Grosso has also been more willing than past lawmakers to test the limits of the School Reform Act. In 2014, before he was committee chairman, Grosso introduced legislation to restrict the number of suspensions and expulsions for preschool students. The charter sector fought the bill, leveraging their federal supremacy arguments, but Grosso went forward anyway. It passed in 2015, the year he was named committee chair. In 2017, again over the strong objections of most charter advocates, Grosso introduced his next school discipline bill to restrict suspensions and expulsions for all public school students.
“I focus the work of the Committee on Education from a perspective of what is best for students and how can I put every student in D.C in the position to succeed in school,” Grosso tells City Paper. “We always set out from that framework. When we have a priority—like [the school discipline bill]—I do a legal analysis with my office and general counsel to make sure that it’s something we can move forward with.” Since becoming committee chair, Grosso says he’s been “able to get my priorities through.”
Gathered on the fourth floor of the Wilson building this past June, at a Council hearing for bills to track the flow of funds to the city’s most vulnerable students, dozens of public witnesses turned out to testify about a different matter: increasing transparency in D.C.’s public charter schools.
Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation, not due for a hearing until Oct. 2, seeks to change that. Supporters of that bill feared the late date was selected to neutralize their momentum, and so they came out earlier to make their case.
This local political battle comes on the heels of a recent fight in California, where advocates had also long sought to bring charters under the state’s sunshine statutes. At the end of 2018, California’s attorney general issued a sweeping opinion around charter transparency, rejecting the idea that nonprofit charters should be exempt from public record requests, and this past March the state’s governor signed a bill bringing all California charter schools under the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws as traditional public schools.
Grosso has already stated his interest in subjecting charters to open meeting laws, something he and other councilmembers rejected back in 2015 when government watchdogs last pushed for it.
With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again.
They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy. They say that just because other states successfully apply sunshine laws to their charters does not mean D.C. would see similar success.
This past spring, Education Reform Now, DFER-DC’s affiliate, funded a text-message campaign against the proposed transparency bill, using the same internal talking points endorsed by FOCUS and the Association. “The D.C Council is considering legislation that would divert resources in quality public charter schools away from helping students achieve to completing onerous paperwork and bureaucracy,” one text read. Another encouraged recipients to click on a link, which provided them with a pre-drafted email to send to their local representatives opposing the legislation. “I am writing to express disappointment in your recently introduced bill to unfairly target public charter schools,” the form email read. “Our kids need teachers and resources not more legal burdens.” DFER-DC did not answer City Paper’s inquiries regarding how many residents received the texts.
At the June hearing some charter leaders made similar points against additional oversight.
“I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies,” testified Shannon Hodge, the executive director of Kingsman Academy, a charter located in Ward 6. “We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”
Royston Lyttle, an Eagle Academy principal, agreed. “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”
“We have seen the playbook of the [National Education Association] for how to act against charters, and unfortunately some of what is happening right now, it’s coming straight out of the playbook,” says Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Peabody echoes her comments, saying the transparency bill is “part of what the national union is proposing to improve the charter schools, but what they’re really saying is if you weaken, surround them by red tape, then they won’t be as good as they are now.”
About three hours into June’s eight-hour hearing, At-Large Councilmember Robert White suggested that charter advocates try another approach going forward. “The biggest opposition to the FOIA piece from charter schools that I’ve heard is that it’s this huge burden. I don’t have a position on this right now, it’s something I’m still listening to, but if the strongest argument from the charter schools is that this is a burden—I don’t think that’s a strong enough argument,” he said. White invited advocates to share “more reasons, other reasons” as to why charter schools believe they should be exempt.
“Yeah it’s a burden, but is it an insurmountable burden?” he asked. “No, it’s not.”