Kaya Henderson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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In her decade-long tenure as a beacon of school reform, six of those years as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, the last thing Kaya Henderson ever displayed was a “crisis in confidence.”

Yet that was her rationale for allowing the children of at least 10 government officials to leapfrog the lottery and attend their school of choice, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General that has enraged parents and kept the chattering classes buzzing for weeks.

The reasoning, states the report, obtained and released by The Washington Post, was that having important people enroll their children with DCPS would not only give the District bragging rights but also allay the concerns of parents who doubted the promise of school reform.

But neither Henderson nor The Post editorial board, as influential an ally as one could hope for, ever expressed much doubt. Even in its news pages, the paper treaded lightly where Henderson was concerned, casting her as the hopeful, more palatable version of maverick Michelle Rhee, her predecessor, ideological soulmate, and bestie.

Henderson’s legacy is now crumbling. First, as AP reported, there were the charity donations she solicited from the DCPS food services contractor, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality Group. Then the school preferences she granted to VIPs such as City Administrator Rashad Young, Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden, an Obama administration official, and others whose names are being withheld in the name of protecting their children. 

And just last weekend, The Post delivered the sobering news that hundreds of teachers have fled DCPS this year. A City Paper investigation last year also showed that Henderson made improving struggling schools her second-highest priority in 2012, only to deprive them of necessary funds as they continued to flounder. And a whistleblower suit exposed corruption in the food services division and obstinance in the chancellor’s office.

“It’s true that for a long time there wasn’t very open reporting [on DCPS] for reasons I can’t explain, but the taboo seems to be off,” says Ruth Wattenberg, who represents Ward 3 on the D.C. State Board of Education. “She’s gone, and that makes it easier, I guess.”

Henderson patrolled and enforced her domain with impunity. A unique culture of fear permeates D.C. government, and DCPS in particular: Disclose facts or publicly criticize a policy or politician, and employees can find themselves ostracized or fired.

“People wanted to believe that everything done in the name of reform was good, and there was no willingness to question if it was,” Wattenberg says. “Unaccountable systems get trapped in their own PR.”

Wattenberg is saying what education experts have been saying for years. “Glowing praise is the public face of the bureaucracy’s [standard operating procedure], and The Washington Post was her No. 1 backer,” says former Wilson High School teacher Erich Martel.

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A defeated Mayor Adrian Fenty tapped Henderson as interim chancellor to succeed the abrasive Michelle Rhee in October 2010, but it was his successor, Vince Gray, who appointed her to lead the DCPS reform effort in June 2011. Henderson pledged less visibility, more listening, and a less combative relationship with her teachers. 

In April 2012, she and Gray announced a five-year strategic plan called “A Capital Commitment,” aimed at improving math and English proficiency, particularly in low-achieving schools, as well as increasing enrollment and graduation rates. Gray and influential philanthropist Katherine Bradley, co-chair of his education transition team, afforded her unwavering support—as did The Post

“School reform in the District is working,” the board declared in November 2013, celebrating  gains attributable to a policy of aggregating test scores, which obscures low performance among at-risk students. Nine months later and two years into “A Capital Commitment,” it applauded a new funding formula for struggling schools—which had been shortchanged—even as it apologized for smaller gains on a test that it then abandoned.

Indeed, Henderson was a bright spot in Gray’s scandal-torn administration, right to the end. Meanwhile, teacher firings, school consolidations or closures, and an impasse on teacher salary negotiations stoked a culture of fear inside DCPS. The firing of former food services director Jeff Mills, who invoked whistleblower status then guided the District to a $19 million settlement with Chartwells-Thompson, became a cautionary tale of epic proportions.

Teachers took note: “If you push back, you will be pushed out,” says a teacher who is leaving DCPS at the end of this school year. “Eventually you are left with a bunch of complacent people.”

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Gray’s ignoble re-election defeat afforded Mayor Muriel Bowser the opportunity to stop the bleeding and put her own stamp on education reform. (According to Loose Lips’ sources, Bowser and Henderson never really got along.) But she played it safe. Last June, when Henderson announced she was leaving, and as teachers went into their fifth year without a new contract, The Post continued its commendations, heralding DCPS as the “fastest improving school district in the country.” 

That optimism comes from a good place, says Catharine Bellinger of D.C. Democrats for Education Reform, but it is not enough to improve confidence in families—or teachers—who are fleeing DCPS. “School reform advocates and the media can change the direction of reform to address problems, but we have to be willing to talk to fix them, and not just politically. It’s time to lead with our chin.”

Wattenberg acknowledges that a culture of fear leads to mediocrity and urges transparency on teacher turnover and fiscal spending. Reform requires leadership at all levels, she says, including the D.C. Council, where she and others see signs of hope. 

The task is challenging for Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who she says deserves the courtesy of being untethered to the legacy of his predecessor. “He should be compared to reality, not the myth.”