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What does a chancellor do all day?
Visit schools? Interview principals? Confer with top aides? “Chancel”?
D.C. Public Schools chief Michelle A. Rhee certainly does all of those things. But in between workaday concerns, Rhee has become part of a vast network of education-oriented charities, think tanks, business interests, and “venture philanthropists.” Her talks with and wooing of this educational-industrial complex have both enmeshed her in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors of her new city and have taken her across the country to speak to grad students, corporate functionaries, and masters of the universe.
LL’s examination of the chancellor’s official schedule through November—obtained through a public records request—reveals the degree to which Rhee’s official duties resemble less those of an public-schools and more those of, say, a college president—someone, in other words, expected to spend a good deal of time hitting up well-heeled types.
Rhee agrees: “I see fundraising as a big part of the job,” she says in an interview. Her job is to fix DCPS—“and part of that certainly is trying to bring every resource you possibly can to bear.”
Rhee has made no secret about the fact that she plans to use private funds to effect a massive increase in teacher salaries tied with a revolutionary reworking of contract rules. What has been a secret is who’s going to be doing the funding; Rhee’s calendar contains numerous meetings with well-known education funders, both national and regional—many of which have been historically devoted to upending traditional public education.
But is Rhee out of the ordinary?
The past decade has seen an explosion in private fundraising for public education, Rhee points out, and raising funds is “sort of the nature of the urban superintendency now.” And in terms of travel, Rhee is far from the most itinerant school leader in the area, a recent Washington Post article made clear—Rhee’s 15 days of official travel in 2008 look perfectly reasonable next to the 49 days Loudoun County’s Edgar B. Hatrick III spent on the road over a 12-month span.
But Hatrick, LL is going to guess, has yet to visit the high-powered confines of the Sun Valley Conference or the Clinton Global Initiative. And ol’ Edgar probably hasn’t been taking calls, as Rhee has, from Caroline Kennedy and Carly Fiorina or enjoying private lunches with Condoleezza Rice. Rhee has been able to insinuate herself in the most exclusive circles of politics and philanthropy, and she credits her national profile for raising tens of millions in cash and pledges since starting as chancellor.
Herewith, a look at the web of intellectual and monetary relationships Rhee has woven in her first 17 months on the job, alongside an accounting of her travel schedule.
THE BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: 10 contacts since June 2007
Key Rendezvous: With co-president Bill Gates Sr. at DCPS headquarters on March 17, 2008
The Skinny: The Gates Foundation, with its estimated $35 billion endowment, is the gorilla these days in the educational philanthropy scene, and Rhee, if her schedule is any indication, certainly has recognized its deep pockets. Less than two weeks after Rhee was appointed chancellor, she was scheduled to meet with Gates staff at their downtown Washington offices. Last November, she was invited to a two-day education seminar in Seattle. Her primary contact has been Jim Shelton, the foundation’s D.C.-based chief of education programs and the current secretary of the Federal City Council.
THE ELI & EDYTHE BROAD FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: At least 11 contacts since September 2007
Key Rendezvous: With founder Eli Broad at his Fifth Avenue apartment on June 30, 2008
The Skinny: Los Angeles housing and insurance mogul Broad has a $2.5 billon foundation that focuses in part on urban school districts. Its mission, “to dramatically improve urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition,” is tailored to Rhee’s rhetoric. Last September, DCPS began participating in a Broad-funded program called EdLabs, intended to measure the effectiveness of various incentives on academic performance. The program was led by wunderkind Harvard professor Roland Fryer, who also masterminded the Capital Gains program, which rewarded kids for good grades with cash. According to the foundation’s Web site, Broad is also funding a “fiscal audit” of DCPS and a “strategic planning effort” to “build a foundation for a performance-oriented culture.” Broad is also a donor to New Leaders for New Schools, which has helped place dozens of principals in DCPS schools.
THE WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: Four contacts since January 2008
Key Rendezvous: Phone calls with Jim Blew, director of K-12 education reform
The Skinny: Historically, the Walton Family Foundation has shied away from traditional public schools in the District; in 2007, for instance, $2.5 million went to local charter facilities financier Building Hope, along with nearly $1 million for voucher administrator Washington Scholarship Fund. But DCPS is now one of four urban school districts funded by the Wal-Mart fortune; the foundation’s stated goals fit nicely with Rhee’s objectives: “[i]ncreasing accountability for school and student performance” and “[a]ligning incentives such as teacher pay with improved student achievement,” to name a couple. The foundation has also invested heavily in the NewSchools Venture Fund.
NEWSCHOOLS VENTURE FUND
Calendar Clout: Eight contacts since July 2007
Key Rendezvous: Dinner with partners Jordan Meranus and Julie Mikuta at Johnny’s Half Shell on July 16, 2007
The Skinny: No education funder in the country embraces the “venture philanthropy” model as thoroughly as the NewSchools Venture Fund—no surprise given its Silicon Valley roots. Its focus is on supporting “education entrepreneurs” who “contribute to the momentum toward more significant improvement within the existing system.” In D.C., that’s meant support for charter schools and support organizations, including the KIPP and Friendship-Edison schools. But it’s also supported organizations with direct relationships with DCPS, including Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. And Mikuta, now in NewSchools’ San Francisco headquarters, was an elected member of the old D.C. Board of Education from 2001 to 2004.
VENTURE PHILANTHROPY PARTNERS
Calendar Clout: At least nine contacts since December 2007
Key Rendezvous: With investor Jack Davies at Caps–Islanders game on Feb. 20, 2008
The Skinny: A philanthropic playground of sorts for the region’s superrich, Venture Philantropy Partners “invests in high-performing nonprofit organizations that are serving the core healthy developmental, learning, and educational needs of children from low-income families.” The fund’s invested in charters in the past, but is reportedly looking for new opportunities and new capital under Carol Thompson Cole, the former mayoral aide and adviser to Bill Clinton on District issues. Rhee has scheduled several meetings or phone calls with Joe Robert, the real estate mogul who founded Fight for Children and is a Federal City Council member. She’s also met investors Raul Fernandez, Dan Leeds, and Ronald and Beth Dozoretz.
FEDERAL CITY COUNCIL
Calendar Clout: At least 12 contacts since July 2007
Key Rendezvous: Keynote speech at council board meeting at Willard InterContinental on Sept. 25, 2007
The Skinny: The organization that’s implicated in just about every conspiracy theory in local politics has been deeply interested in the Rhee regime from its earliest weeks. On July 11, 2007, Rhee scheduled a meeting with the organization’s education committee, and that night dined at the home of financier and FCC member Jonathan Silver. In the following weeks and months, Rhee kept in touch with CEO John Hill and met with top leaders Frank Keating and Terence Golden (pictured). She’s maintained regular contact with Hill and other members. The FCC’s interest in education reform is no secret, though before Rhee appeared it had expended most of its energy on charter schools.
Calendar Clout: Four meetings since January 2008
Key Rendezvous: Dinner with Venture Philanthropy Partners investors at the home of David and Katherine Bradley (pictured) on May 8, 2008
The Skinny: CityBridge is the main philanthropic outlet for the riches of David Bradley, the founder of the Advisory Board Co. and Corporate Executive Board and owner of Atlantic Media Co. CityBridge, headed by wife Katherine, started exploring local education projects in 2000, focusing on early childhood issues. The foundation has partnered with the D.C. Preparatory Academy charter (also supported by NewSchools) and KIPP’s first D.C. elementary school, which opened last fall. The Bradleys have hosted Rhee at their Massachusetts Heights home three times, including at an April 2008 Teach for America board meeting (Katherine Bradley is a member).
THE NEW TEACHER PROJECT
Calendar Clout: At least five contacts since January 2008
Key Rendezvous: With CEO Ariela Rozman and others at Mama Ayesha’s on Jan. 22, 2008
The Skinny: Rhee has maintained maintains close ties to this nonprofit, which she founded in 1998 and ran until taking the DCPS job. The New Teacher Project helped launch and still helps run the D.C. Teaching Fellows program, which has brought “hundreds of young and mid-career professionals with proven track records of success” to D.C. schools. Some of Rhee’s top aides have ties to the organization—deputy chancellor Kaya Henderson, for one, used to run the D.C. Teaching Fellows. NewSchools Venture Fund’s Mikuta sits on the TNTP board.
THE KIMSEY FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: At least two meetings since September 2007
Key Rendezvous: Lunch with founder James Kimsey at BlackSalt on Feb. 28, 2008
The Skinny: AOL founder Kimsey’s philanthropy aims to use its $25 million in assets to support a “variety of educational programs aimed at providing opportunities for the students and helping to improve the District’s education system.” The foundation’s day-to-day operations are run by son Michael Kimsey, also active in the Federal City Council and on the KIPP DC/KEY Academy board. According to tax documents, the foundation has pledged $300,000 to Fight for Children and $250,000 to New Leaders for New Schools.
THE ROBERTSON FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: Two meetings since July 2007
Key Rendezvous: Dinner with Robertson family members at Georgetown Ritz-Carlton on Nov. 9, 2007
The Skinny: Founded by hedge fund mogul Julian Robertson Jr. (pictured), the $400 million Robertson Foundation is rare among education philanthropists in explicitly funding reform initiatives both inside traditional public schools and outside them, through charters and vouchers. As far as “Reform from Within” goes, the foundation has been a key private supporter of Joel Klein’s New York public schools, “supporting activities that enhance existing system policies and practices, drive more effective use of resources, and conduct demonstration projects which can be adopted throughout public systems.” In D.C., the foundation has been a heavy contributor to the D.C. Education Compact—money to be disbursed directly to DCPS.
THE WALLACE FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: Three meetings since December 2007
Key Rendezvous: Dinner with foundation board, along with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, in New York on April 21, 2008
The Skinny: This outfit is the philanthropic legacy of DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, founders of Reader’s Digest. In recent years, their educational work has focused on improving training for educational leaders—principals and administrators—and on providing more general support for educational programs. One of its largest 2007 grant recipients was D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., which received $4 million to develop out-of-school programs with DCPS for middle schoolers.
THE ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: Three contacts since December 2007
Key Rendezvous: Lunch with education program director Bruno Manno and senior VP Ralph Smith at the Caucus Room on June 12, 2008
The Skinny: The Baltimore-based foundation was seeded more than 60 years ago with United Parcel Service money; today, the charity, worth $2.3 billion, focuses its education efforts on “results-based accountability.” Manno is a former federal education official under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who now heads Casey’s education giving. Manno also serves on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools with Joel Klein and Ted Mitchell of the NewSchools Venture Fund. Casey investments in recent years have included grants to Fight for Children, Washington Scholarship Fund, and New Leaders for New Schools.
THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
Calendar Clout: Four contacts since June 2008
Key Rendezvous: Featured guest at education roundtable moderated by CEO Walter Isaacson at Aspen’s D.C. headquarters on Oct. 31, 2008
The Skinny: The longstanding think tank has taken a strong interest in education reform—including such pet Rhee issues as workforce improvement and No Child Left Behind—and has, if nothing else, provided Rhee with killer networking opportunities. In 2008, Rhee attended three Aspen confabs in Washington, including a June meeting of the group’s Urban Superintendents Network, a group of about a dozen members devoted to “sharing promising reform strategies and considering lessons from each others’ efforts” and a speaking gig at Aspen’s National Education Summit in September.
NEW LEADERS FOR NEW SCHOOLS
Calendar Clout: At least six contacts since July 2007
Key Rendezvous: Dinner with D.C. executive officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett at Acadiana on July 29, 2008
The Skinny: Essentially a version of The New Teacher Project for principals, New Leaders for New Schools has worked closely with Rhee to headhunt for DCPS school leaders. On a national level, NLNS is supported by virtually all of the major educational philanthropies—Gates, Broad, Casey, Walton Family. Locally, the Kimsey Foundation and Philip E. Graham Fund have both donated significant amounts. Rhee’s met a half-dozen times with NLNS execs, but the ties go deeper than meetings: Byrd-Bennett, a former head of the Cleveland Public Schools, is head of NLNS’ D.C. projects; her former deputy and successor in Cleveland, Lisa M. Ruda, is Rhee’s chief of staff.
Related: Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, The Kimsey Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, American Enterprise Institute, Washington Post, Robertson Foundation, The New Teacher Project
AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE FOR PUBLIC POLICY RESEARCH
Calendar Clout: Five contacts since October 2007
Key Rendezvous: Keynote speaker at event at AEI headquarters on Feb. 13, 2008
The Skinny: The conservative-leaning think tank has been a leader in school choice advocacy and research for years. In late 2007, AEI’s Frederick M. Hess (pictured) reached out to Rhee and asked her to join their “Future of American Education” working group; she became the only leader of a public school system to join the group of two dozen mostly academics—plus execs from NewSchools Venture Fund and New Leaders for New Schools. Rhee attended three AEI events last year, including a March forum on “Turning Around the Nation’s Worst Schools.” Last May, Fenty chose Hess as one of two independent evaluators of the D.C. Public Schools.
D.C. EDUCATION COMPACT
Calendar Clout: At least four contacts since September 2007
Key Rendezvous: With chair George Vradenburg and other board members at Greater Washington Board of Trade offices on Dec. 13, 2007
The Skinny: The D.C. Education Compact has played a central role in the city’s public-private educational complex. Most crucially, it provides a coordinated conduit of private funds directly into DCPS; for instance, in 2007, the Robertson Foundation gave $3 million and the Broad Foundation gave $1.25 million—funds that were used to complete studies of DCPS management conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Alvarez & Marsal. Rhee has had dozens of meetings with consultants hired with those funds. Its future as a funding intermediary is uncertain, given that Fenty and Rhee have established a new clearinghouse—-the D.C. Public Education Fund.
Calendar Clout: At least six contacts since January 2008
Key Rendezvous: With Klein and Harvard professor Roland Fryer in Rhee’s conference room on May 23, 2008
The Skinny: The New York schools chancellor was not only responsible for getting Rhee her job in D.C., but has been a valuable guide to the world of big-dollar education finance. For instance, a couple of weeks prior to last July’s Sun Valley conference—a high-powered masters-of-the-universe confab—Rhee scheduled a phone call with Klein to make plans for the event, which she attended for a day. Klein’s connections to the foundation world are strong, and due to his years as a Washington lawyer both in private practice and at the Department of Justice, he’s a known quantity in D.C. as well.
THE WASHINGTON POST CO.
Calendar Clout: At least two dozen contacts since June 2007
Key Rendezvous: With chairman Don Graham at DCPS headquarters on April 9, 2007
The Skinny: The titan of city journalism has given Rhee its unalloyed editorial support since before her appointment was even announced. Rhee’s schedule shows at least a half-dozen contacts with Jo-Ann Armao, the chief writer of local editorials, or the editorial board at large. That’s in addition to lunches with columnists Colby King and William Raspberry. She’s certainly no stranger to Graham; she scheduled a meeting with him, also a Federal City Council honcho, in her office last April. The Post Co.’s philanthropic arm, the Philip L. Graham Fund, hasn’t particularly focused on education, but it did donate $100,000 to New Leaders for New Schools and $150,000 to Venture Philanthropy Partners in 2007.
THE MILKEN FAMILY FOUNDATION
Calendar Clout: Two meetings since October 2007
Key Rendezvous: With President Lowell Milken in Rhee’s office on Nov. 16, 2007
The Skinny: The philanthropic arm of financier brothers Lowell and Michael Milken (yes, that Michael Milken), this foundation has taken special interest in a subject close to Rhee’s heart: teacher quality. Lowell Milken, with whom Rhee scheduled a late 2007 meeting, boasts about his “Teacher Advancement Program,” billed as a “comprehensive research-based strategy to attract, develop, motivate and retain high quality teachers for America’s schools”—the Broad and Walton Family foundations are both investors. The foundation has also spun off a National Institute for Excellence in Teaching to develop partnerships with school districts.