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On a given day in the course of running the 47,000-student D.C. Public Schools system, Chancellor Kaya Henderson could be handing out iPads, reading to elementary school kids, or haggling with a councilmember.
But running one of the country’s most-watched public school systems means something else, too: hitting up a group of well-heeled donors for cash and ideas. Like her controversial predecessor, Michelle Rhee, Henderson has found her way onto the circuit of private groups hoping to influence the District’s public schools.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, LL obtained Henderson’s calendar between January 2013 and August 2015 to see who’s working with the chancellor behind the scenes. It turns out that while Henderson has avoided becoming a Rhee-style lightning rod in the education wars, she shares with her predecessor many of the same backers in the world of school reform.
Unlike Rhee, Henderson doesn’t have a documentary like Waiting for Superman to make her a star amongst education wonks. Still, she has kept up Rhee’s jet-setting schedule.
Like any good local District political figure, Henderson uses the Old Ebbitt Grill like a second office, but she’s just as likely to be headed to Croatia or China. Henderson has made it to big-deal conferences like the Allen & Co. Sun Valley confab, where she talked schools with bigwigs whom one attendee described as “100 percent of the one percent.”
Henderson hasn’t shrunk from the public profile established by her predecessor. In 2013, according to her calendar, she received media training help from Vince Gray’s 2010 campaign adviser Mo Elleithee. She meets with celebrities like politico Donna Brazile and basketball star Magic Johnson.
Henderson has also been talking to Catharine Bellinger, now the head of the Democrats for Education Reform D.C. political action committee aimed at pushing reform-minded candidates in the District. DFER has been staunchly pro-charter and anti-teachers union.
Another carry-over from the previous administration: Rhee herself, who occasionally schedules phone calls with Henderson. Ex-mayor and Rhee patron Adrian Fenty made his own meeting with Henderson back in 2013, on behalf of an education technology company he was working for.
Despite trips to conferences as far away as Turkey, Henderson doesn’t have to leave the District to call up wealthy donors with big ideas about DCPS. Below, some of the groups Henderson talks to most frequently:
(A word about the number of meetings counted below. Because DCPS’ FOIA officer went heavy with the redactions, it’s hard to know how many meetings with donors were redacted from LL’s request. And the calendar doesn’t include Henderson’s interactions with donors at events or unscheduled meetings.)
The CityBridge Foundation Calendar Activity: At least seven contacts
CityBridge president Katherine Bradley carries a lot of influence in the world of District education reform, and with good reason. Backed by the fortune of Bradley’s husband (and owner of the Atlantic) David Bradley, CityBridge has teamed with both Rhee and Henderson. The foundation’s website declares Henderson a “superstar.”
Incidentally, the Advisory Board, the consulting company which David Bradley founded, is set to get a hefty tax break from the Bowser administration.
The Washington Post Editorial Board and Don Graham Calendar Activity: At least 11 contacts
Henderson, like Rhee, has maintained a tight relationship with the Washington Post’s editorial board. Henderson and Post local editorial expert Jo-Ann Armao are in regular contact. The relationship has paid off for Henderson, who has earned several favorable editorials from the Post.
But the Post isn’t just good for positive press. LL’s calendar dump spans the time when Post heir Don Graham sold the paper to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in mid-2013. Graham, a prolific education donor in the District, was interested in Henderson and DCPS both before and after selling the paper.
Graham has dropped as much ink as dollars on Henderson. When former At-Large Councilmember David Catania backed school legislation that could have cut into Henderson’s powers, Graham wrote an op-ed calling him a “bully.”
The Broad Foundation Calendar Activity: At least two contacts
Henderson has met with the school foundation heavies in the Broad Foundation, including on a trip to Los Angeles. Henderson has also met with Eli Broad, the tycoon whose fortune has funded a major charter school push in Los Angeles.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Calendar Activity: At least three contacts
Along with the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation signs some of the biggest checks in the ed reform world. Not included here are Henderson’s meetings with many Gates Foundation-funded groups, the complete counting of which would require LL to build a Homeland-style “crazy wall.”
Venture Philanthropy Partners Calendar Activity: At least six contacts
Venture Philanthropy Partners functions as a catch-all for reform-minded checks from the likes of Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. Leading the charge is former District mayoral chief of staff and regular Henderson contact Carol Thompson Cole.
The D.C. Public Education Fund Calendar Activity: At least 30 contacts
Fenty and Rhee set up the DCPEF as an intermediary for school reform checks from large donors like the Gates Foundation. Given its origin with the Green Team, it shouldn’t be any surprise to LL readers that it doubles as a hangout for Fenty types like Chico Horton and Ben Soto (both of whom are now steering Muriel Bowser’s controversial PAC FreshPAC). But the fund’s real power comes from the likes of chairman and Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, who takes frequent meetings with Henderson. In a statement, DCPS spokeswoman Michelle Lerner calls DCPEF “an important aspect in bringing in additional funding to support our priorities.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery