She’s the wife of a media mogul, a friend of the Washington Post’s Graham family. She’s a philanthropist, adviser to public officials, and conduit to private foundations and investors in what has become her life’s work. In D.C., likely no private citizen is more involved in public education than Katherine Bradley.

Bradley and her husband, David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media Company, are completely committed to education, and they have the means to affect policy at the highest level. They live in a mansion and have offices in the Watergate complex. They host galas and hobnob with business and political elite. In 2012, the Washington Business Journal named the couple “Philanthropists of the Year.”

Operating in a nebulous zone between D.C. Public Schools and a network of charter school operators, innovators, and fellow donors, Katherine Bradley is a force multiplier: As secretary of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit collective of District power brokers, and chair of its Education Reform Committee, she and former Post owner Donald Graham and former Mayor Anthony Williams, both executive officers, form a virtual trilateral education commission. They talk broadly about public education reform, and they pour money, energy, and influence into privately managed solutions.

Bradley’s primary advocacy vehicle is CityBridge Foundation, a nonprofit that distributed nearly $25 million in grants, scholarships, and donations from 2004 to 2013—mostly to charter schools and groups like Teach for America, which received $2.5 million according to tax filings. The Bradleys personally gave more than $20 million to CityBridge during that time. Like Bradley herself, the foundation is at the center of a constellation of private interests that are promoting charter schools in D.C. and around the country. The organization partners with TFA, Friends of Choice in Urban Education, and Charter Board Partners, and counts among its “Thought Partners” the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Proponents of “choice” welcome CityBridge as a policy force. Others find Bradley’s influence unsettling, especially at a time when cities are pushing back against privatization of public education as a pathway to successful outcomes and equality of access. Bradley describes herself as a “cross-spectrum advocate,” and denies she has an outsized role: “Like most others in education philanthropy, I have a strategic view about how to build a system of schools that will serve all children well, and I have shared that perspective broadly, if primarily, with a business and philanthropic audience,” she wrote last year in response to inquiries for this story.

DCPS is entering its second decade of a reform effort into its fifth mayoral administration. That “business and philanthropic audience” has nudged DCPS to 45 percent charter school enrollment and grudging academic gains, while rankling traditional public school advocates who are concerned about disproportionate influence from the private sector. Just recently, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s education team responded to such concerns by launching a “Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force” to improve its communications with stakeholders such as parents and teachers. The D.C. Council has also begun weighing legislation to subject charter schools to greater scrutiny.

Meanwhile, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has hinted that her tenure could end in 2017, potentially leaving the continuity of the long-range DCPS reform strategy in the hands of Bradley, Graham, Williams, and their network of private interests. This might prompt parents and taxpayers to wonder what all these “Thought Partners” are doing, and who do they answer to?

Every city has its own education story. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the teacher’s union have waged war with charter school operator Eva S. Moskowitz, founder of the rapidly expanding Success Academy. Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s steep investment in charter schools—aided by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political support and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s financial support—led to an angry backlash. Results came about too slowly, and the money dried up. Pittsburgh officials have pushed back on private sector influence by re-focusing on traditional public school reform. In New Orleans, on the other hand, more than 90 percent of all students in the city’s public education system attend charter schools.

D.C.’s story begins with a study. In 2006, the Federal City Council commissioned research to make the case for mayoral control of public schools. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s pick for chancellor, Michelle Rhee, a fierce advocate of advanced-performance metrics, brought national attention to DCPS, but also acrimony to a gentrifying city with entrenched racial, social, and economic disparities. Rhee, a TFA alum-turned-reformer, enjoyed unwavering support from Bradley and her allies. Bradley served as outreach ambassador for Rhee, for whom she also hosted an engagement party in 2010. When Rhee wanted to hire former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn that year to conduct message control, Bradley donated $100,000 to pay Dunn’s salary, the Washington Post reported at the time.

Rhee’s departure in 2011 did not faze Bradley. She embraced Rhee’s protege Kaya Henderson and co-chaired the education committee of the transition team for Fenty’s successor, Vincent Gray, who embraced Henderson as well. Bradley’s alliance with Graham, a fellow philanthropist and low-key civic force, provided a sounding board in the Post, which has heavily endorsed gains in math, reading, and science through charter schools such as KIPP D.C. Graham and Bradley sit on the KIPP board. The two are unabashed in their mutual admiration: Graham quotes Bradley in his Post op-eds, and Bradley names Graham as one of the people she admires most. “I like goodness and intelligence—and besides, all my favorite men are in media,” she told the Washington Business Journal in 2012.

In the summer of 2013, Bradley and Williams visited former At-Large Councilmember David Catania, then the Council education committee chair and chief ed-reform agitator, to negotiate a “truce” between him and Gray, according to sources familiar with the meeting. After Gray lost the Democratic primary, Bowser promptly met with Henderson, whom she had harshly criticized during the race. Graham soon thereafter trashed Catania in a Post op-ed, calling him a “bully” for allegedly trying to undercut Henderson’s authority.

Once elected, Bowser selected as education co-chair of her transition team Michela English, chief executive officer of Fight for Children, where Bradley serves on the board. English also is a board member of the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private funding conduit between philanthropists and DCPS that receives and manages substantial donations from CityBridge, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Meyer Foundation, which Graham’s grandfather founded. Those foundations donated more than $12 million to DCPEF from 2011 to 2013, according to tax filings.

As Bowser’s administration took shape, Jennifer Niles, the founder of E.L. Haynes Public Charter Schools, replaced Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, a trustee of E.L. Haynes whose children attend school there, according to news reports. To Bradley, Niles seemed a perfect choice to oversee DCPS. She helped secure a federal Race to the Top grant of $75 million, led efforts to transition teachers to Common Core standards, and created a residency teacher-training program along with KIPP D.C., which CityBridge has generously supported. “Jennie Niles is singular—the only person, anywhere in our city, who seems able to simultaneously produce results for kids and also marshal the whole city toward a place of greater coordination, cooperation, and high standards,” Bradley exclaimed, in the E.L. Haynes newsletter. “What’s not to love?” Added Henderson: “She’s not just about charter school kids; Jennie is about all kids.”

The doors of District government have remained open to Bradley and her allies. Last month, Loose Lips reported on Henderson’s meetings schedule from January 2013 to August 2015, which contained a who’s who of education advocates and philanthropists who see privatization as the future of education. The chancellor’s calendar shows that Bradley, Graham, and the Post Editorial Board met with her a combined total of 19 times, a frequency not inconsistent with the Post’s editorial support of Henderson, even after Graham sold the paper in 2013. (Two Post editorials in 2013 urged DCPS to make “former or soon-to-be-closed public schools” available for re-use by charter schools, citing a study by New Schools Venture Fund, which, along with Microsoft Corporation, has backed CityBridge’s Education Innovation Fellowship, a pilot based on teaching models from around the country.) DCPEF accounted for 30 meetings with Henderson during that time period, and Venture Philanthropy Partners, which names CityBridge as a principal funder, met with the chancellor six times. The Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among CityBridge’s many funding partners, accounted for five meetings.

Such backroom access lends itself to the perception that elites are acting as the strategy arm of local government. “Average people don’t know that [Bradley] is the puppeteer,” says a longtime observer of D.C. government and politics who requested anonymity in order to speak openly. “She probably has Jennie [Niles] and Muriel [Bowser] on speed dial. And when she calls, it’s not just Katherine Bradley, it’s her entire network, which she will use.”

Parents and teachers feel left out of the loop. “Where is policy forged? Who does the chancellor listen to? Because it’s sure not the teachers,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “We have a shadow government in D.C. Whether or not that continues depends on the mayor and if she allows it to influence her decisions.”

Cathy Reilly of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators adds, “D.C. has ceded power to the private sector without public input. Katherine Bradley certainly embodies that.”

In an emailed response, Henderson denies that this level of access has a greater meaning.

“I can only speak for DCPS, but I can confidently say that the private sector has not exerted an inordinate amount of influence in the crafting of our policies,” Henderson says. “We have determined our strategic priorities by looking carefully at data, studying best practices across the country, and engaging our stakeholders—families, educators, community members and partners—in big decisions.”

Bradley’s stature as the darling of education philanthropy is without question, but her role extends well beyond charitable giving. When Henderson gave an address in 2014 on the state of DCPS, Bradley was there to tout gains fueled by private foundations. In October, she led a briefing in the mayor’s office in which she and Williams, along with Henderson, Niles, and Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, braced councilmembers for low student proficiency scores on the much-awaited Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers study, according to sources familiar with the meeting. “She’s seen as having a deep reach into DCPS and the charters, if you want to get them together in the same room,” a Council staffer says. “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”

That same month, Bradley sat for a Q&A at the American Enterprise Institute titled “The Disrupters,” about “education innovation and designing the school of the future.” Poised and persuasive, Bradley struck a “here’s what we’re doing in my district” tone, as DCPS officials sat in the audience. Here was Bradley on Common Core: “Our city has moved forward practically without a hitch.” On students, and assessing “softer skills,” such as resilience and grit: “If we don’t come up with quantitative ways to measure them they’re going to disappear in terms of focus of schools.” On teachers, and one-to-one teaching models: “We’re re-thinking and re-designing the role of the teacher.” On principals: “There’s a number of things that we’re doing here locally… in terms of creating a principal training program within DCPS.”

The AEI session established that Bradley can hold her own with any technocrat. She has a passion for metrics, technology, and the culture of innovation that is embodied in market-based competition models of reform. Describing her visit, hosted by Bill Gates, to a flagship innovation-based school in Bellevue, Wash., she said, “It looks like you are in a technology firm. It feels like you are in Google.”

All of which is good news to Dr. Jeffrey Eisenach, a visiting scholar at AEI and vice president for education at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., where Bradley sits on the board of directors and serves on the education committee. “I’m a free-market conservative, so if you ask me, I’d like to see more charter schools, more vouchers,” says Eisenach, stipulating that the D.C. political scene is not his milieu. Eisenach credits Bradley with taking a fact-based, analytical, and non-ideological approach to education in order to see what works. “Put me down as a fan,” he says. “Obviously, there are politics in anything like this. If a well-intended, smart person comes on the scene and says ‘let’s see if I can make things better,’ then they can’t do it without stepping on a few toes. But I think Katherine does so in a thoughtful, elegant manner.”

Eisenach says he regards D.C. as a “quiet success story,” particularly since Rhee departed. Yet it would be hard to ignore that a massive capital infusion has, in large part, driven local education reform. Rhee and the DCPEF in 2010 negotiated a $64.5 million grant from four major family foundations, including the Waltons and the Broads, to study the impact of teacher performance on student achievement and the disparity in achievement between charter and traditional public school students, through 2016. The resulting DCPS Strategic Plan for 2013-2017 aims to improve the 40 lowest-performing schools by 40 points, make 70 percent of DCPS students proficient in reading and math, have 75 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years, and increase enrollment. The plan also aspires for 90 percent of students to say they like their school.

Two overlapping private studies informed the strategic plan. One, which the Walton Foundation funded and the Illinois Facility Fund conducted, analyzed supply and demand for “performing schools” and ultimately recommended closure or “turnaround” of dozens of public schools, and transfer of property to the charter school board. But “policymakers should take the analysis with a grain of salt,” wrote the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in its critique of the IFF study. DCFPI cited IFF’s ties to charter school funders and its failure to sufficiently analyze student achievement growth or account for large numbers of special education and English-language learners, or poverty rates across neighborhoods. “Ignoring these critical factors when making policy decisions regarding school closure, turnaround, or expansion would be short-sighted,” wrote DCFPI.

The other, conducted by Massachusetts-based Education Resource Strategies and funded by CityBridge grants, informed the DCPS school “consolidation and reorganization plan,” budgeting process, and teacher salary structure. City Paper obtained internal DCPS emails and documents that show DCPEF and CityBridge heavily involved in overseeing the ERS study they funded. In a final report, DCPEF credits Bradley’s foundation with more than financial largesse: “CityBridge’s support of Education Fund operations over the past year has been critical in ensuring the Education Fund’s ability to support DCPS’ work to develop and communicate its new strategic plan, lay the groundwork for improved collaboration with DCPS, and build awareness of DCPS work both within the philanthropic community and throughout the greater Washington area.”

CityBridge has advanced the city plan by recruiting outside talent to implement new teaching strategies based on its view of “best practices” nationwide. Three years hence, “New Classrooms Innovation Partners” is bringing blended learning to classrooms in two DCPS schools “to re-imagine education through personalized instruction.” Breakthrough Schools D.C., which CityBridge manages, is orchestrating “a systemic shift to new, personalized, mastery-based learning models” in 18 “transformational” schools serving ten percent of the city’s students by 2017. By matching grants from the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation and other national funders, CityBridge expects to distribute at least $6 million to Breakthrough.

Budget watchers say that reliance on such outside influence hinders oversight and accountability. “There are a lot of big money people interested in education,” says veteran lawyer and school finance analyst Mary Levy. “I don’t fault their intentions, though I fault their results. They have taken public schools away from the public, and we have very little say. Why do we want to trade a remote local bureaucracy for remote outside bureaucracies?”

Bradley denies any outsized influence through CityBridge. “Because the issue of private influence on public decision making has been raised, it is important to point out that all our work operates within a system of checks and balances, ensuring ultimate public accountability for education. CityBridge may fund a charter school, but the independent authorizer must approve that charter and parents then have the option of choosing whether children attend that school or not,” she told City Paper.

If past is prologue, then a look back at recent DCPS history could serve as guidance as to how Bradley advances policies she supports. And one way to envision her at work is to review her email communications with DCPS officials and deputy mayors past and present, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, which show her enjoying a direct pipeline to Henderson, Smith, and more recently, Niles.

Two of the most politically challenging education initiatives in recent years have been public school closures and the effort to secure chartering authority for Henderson; CityBridge has been in the thick of both. In September 2012, one of Bradley’s employees emailed Henderson’s chief strategist with a compelling offer from Bradley and Williams, who headed the FCC at the time: “Does the Chancellor still want chartering authority? And would the Chancellor still find it helpful to have FCC members provide an objective, financial voice on DCPS closures with compelling economic data?” CityBridge Research Director Jon Extein wrote to Peter Weber, who advises Henderson, noting that FCC members were considering working with councilmembers “to push through legislation” and “bolster the case to the community.” Within a half hour, Henderson herself replied, “Yes and yes!!”

A couple months later, Bradley was listed as a “required attendee” on an internal DCPS notice of a “CONFIDENTIAL BRIEFING” on school closures for Williams at the FCC offices. A follow-up email from Henderson thanked Bradley for reviewing the DCPS plan “to consolidate and reorganize DCPS schools” in advance of releasing the plan “to the community.”

Smith took over as deputy mayor for education in March 2013, and within weeks she and Bradley were scheduling calls and meeting over coffee or lunch regarding a detailed agenda consisting of several items. One such agenda item was to introduce Smith to Shivam Shah, a former official with the U.S. Department of Education’s office that oversees charter schools, a former associate partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, a co-founder of E.L. Haynes, and, at the time, a senior adviser to America Achieves, which promotes support for “investing public funds in evidence-based solutions” in education. Shah has described NewSchools as “modeled after a traditional venture capital fund,” and in a 2009 panel discussion stated that “if we wanted to change education we need to do it by supporting individuals outside the system… traditional systems are not designed to do that.”

“[Shivam] is now available and would be interested in consulting for you on writing and developing the city’s plan,” Bradley wrote to Smith in May 2013, referring to chartering authority and DCPS integration with the charter school sector. Bradley then wrote to Shah, “Abby is ready to talk to you about various ways that your skill set could be a match for their (very exciting) agenda. Abby has moved away from the idea of writing a ‘plan,’ which requires putting everything on hold for an indeterminate period, and is instead framing this work as ‘joint planning.’ I know the two of you will be a great match.”

Bradley also wasted little time making her case for public funds to lure new teachers to the District. “I want to make sure I am doing whatever I should be doing to help Teach For America prod the city on funding pipelines for human capital,” wrote Bradley, chair of TFA’s Washington regional board, in a May 2013 email to Smith, a former TFA vice president. “We are now the only district in the country without public funding for TFA… I suspect there is a good solution using federal or local funds.”

A month later, in June 2013, Bradley then alerted Smith to an opportunity for D.C. to become a Gates Foundation “charter-district” compact city. “I think this would be great for us,” she wrote. “I think we could compete very well for resources and get great visibility. Abby, if you are interested, I will… get the ball rolling. I think this could mean significant and targeted resources for key [deputy mayor] projects.”

She comes across here as assertive, if not presumptuous, but Bradley also seems keenly aware of the line that is required between a private philanthropist and a government official: “Abby, as the president of a family foundation, I am severely limited in what I can say or do in re: pending legislation,” she wrote to Smith on June 30, 2013, advising on the implications of chartering authority for Henderson, including how to shut down low-performing schools. “I cannot testify, for instance, and I cannot offer specific language around how to solve some of these issues.” (Bradley instead referred Smith to one of CityBridge’s partners, NewSchools Venture Fund, where she also serves on the board of directors. “Please let me know what else I can do,” she wrote.)

Bradley also does not hesitate to play matchmaker for charter school operators and private consultants looking to gain traction with Henderson. “Abby, I believe Emily Bloomfield is coming in soon to talk with you about her evolving project, Monument Academy… an innovative new school, a charter school with a weekday housing component for foster care kids,” she wrote to Smith in July 2013. “What I wanted to share with you is that Emily is very open to doing this charter for Kaya. She does not think of it as a conflict of loyalty at all, even given her service on the [Public Charter School Board].”

In January 2014, Bradley wrote to Smith to advance Gallup’s educational mission “to maximize the way K-12 schools define and measure student performance” through strengths-based learning and development strategies: “As we discussed, they have some wonderful ideas for how to add programming for DC public schools.”

After reviewing such emails, Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the nonpartisan advocacy group Public Citizen, says Bradley’s interactions with D.C. officials demonstrate “an unusually close relationship” with government policymakers that is “unlike other private stakeholders.” He describes Bradley as “probably the most influential player in shaping the District’s education policies,” and although he sees no evidence of ill motive or personal gain, he maintains that “Bradley is functioning not just as a philanthropist, but also as a lobbyist, and should register as such and disclose her activities.”

Former Wilson High School teacher and activist Erich Martel says such coziness among philanthropists, the private sector, and public officials reminds him of Plato’s “Cave,” an allegory in which captives view shadows on a wall as reality, because it’s all they see. For your average parent, Martel says, in an interview last year for this story, it’s often impossible to tell how change comes about: “How does one determine who influences whom? It’s the same people talking to each other.”

Approached in late 2014 for comment on their communications, both Bradley and Smith said they were comfortable with their relationship but declined to elaborate. Smith maintained at the time that her conversations with Bradley were “sporadic” and not unlike the ones she had with “dozens of other people across the spectrum.” Echoing that position, Bradley stated that, “I often share ideas or contacts that we find, and I keep [Smith] informed about our work—things that can be broadly useful as the city seeks steadily to improve our schools.”

Mayoral administrations differ from one to the next, but a series of emails released just last week in response to a FOIA request suggest that not much in the way of policy direction has changed from Smith to Niles, and that the access enjoyed by Bradley, Williams, and Graham has not been disrupted much—if at all. In fact, Niles and Smith worked together as early as July 2013 in their former capacities on mutual initiatives such as increasing the pipeline of college-ready science, tech, and math students in DCPS. Attendees of an October 2013 tour of performance-based schools in Maine took note when the two sat next to each other on the bus each day. Those same sources were not surprised when Niles excused herself from a hearing hosted by the Bowser transition team after the 2014 election, then returned a short time later to announce that she had been tapped as deputy mayor for education. Now, unlike her predecessor, Niles directly manages Henderson.

Recent communications show Bradley and Niles getting along famously. “Jennie, I hope you are on a real high today with the news about how well D.C. did on [National Assessment of Educational Progress],” Bradley wrote on October 28, before inviting Niles to a “small lunch discussion” with acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates and 20 others on the subject of race and education. Niles responded that she would love to attend and apologized for her “brain freeze” the previous week about an op-ed in the works. “I’m working on it now with our authors,” she wrote.

Turns out those “authors” were no strangers to Bradley: An October 27 email from Don Graham to Niles and Bradley, copying former Mayor Williams, informed her that, “Tony and I have written the following for submission to the Post for Friday publication (I can do the submitting!). Can you look it over and send proposed edits…”

“Dear Don,” came the enthusiastic reply from Niles, “Terrific! We will review the piece this afternoon and email any suggested edits back tomorrow. The Mayor/Council breakfast presentation went well (phew!) and we’re headed to Thurgood Marshall Academy to surprise the students and faculty with a cake because of their outstanding scores, especially relative to other schools in the city. Cheers! Jennie.”

Robert Tate, a senior analyst for the National Education Association, says Bradley and her inner circle may have gotten carried away with their good intentions and easy access to power. “Whenever a wealthy person gives to any cause, the question naturally arises: Is there disproportionate influence on this cause, and if so, why this one? Is that how we want to think about democracy and society?” Tate asks. “No one else would have that kind of input. Is that what Americans want? I’d say Americans are over that stuff.”

Photo by Tony Powell

Contact the author at or on Twitter @jeffreyanders19.