Four top candidates are jockeying to become the next Ward 5 councilmember. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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School reform group Democrats for Education Reform is dumping gobs of money into local races. The total from March through mid June, according to the D.C. chapter’s most recent finance report, comes to just shy of $1 million—a significant increase over the amount the organization spent in 2020, when two of the three candidates they backed for the D.C. Council lost.

This cycle, the pro-charter, anti-union group picked Mayor Muriel Bowser, Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Ward 3 contender Eric Goulet as their favorites. They haven’t weighed in directly in Ward 1, but finance reports show that DFER-DC transferred $50,000 to the LGBTQ Victory Fund PAC, which has spent more than $114,000 supporting Salah Czapary, the former D.C. police officer challenging Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Conspicuously absent from DFER’s attempted sphere of influence is the race in Ward 5. Perhaps DFER-DC learned its lesson in 2018 when it backed Adrian Jordan over Zachary Parker in Ward 5’s State Board of Education race and lost. Or maybe it took the hint from a candidate forum DC for Democracy hosted last November, where each of the candidates running to replace Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie said they would reject DFER’s endorsement (though Vincent Orange gave a different answer to the Washington Teachers’ Union).

So what, then, are D.C. voters to do if they can’t rely on a national education reform group to guide them at the polls? Candidates’ campaign finance reports and answers to questionnaires offer some clues.

At first glance, it might seem as though Faith Gibson Hubbard is most closely aligned with DFER’s priorities (even if she has said she would reject their endorsement). Gibson Hubbard is fresh out of the Bowser administration and supports mayoral control of schools (as do two of her opponents, Orange and Gordon-Andrew Fletcher). She also has a fairly sizable list of contributions from charter school executives and proponents, including Patricia Brantley, Stacy Kane, and Katherine Bradley, founder of CityBridge Foundation, which gives lots of support to charter schools. Bradley has also personally donated tens of thousands of dollars to DFER over the years. Former D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who oversaw the closing of under performing schools in D.C. and generally supported performance-based standards and expansion of charter schools (all DFER priorities), also pitched in.

For WTU executive board member Laura Fuchs, Henderson’s donation alone is enough to disqualify Gibson Hubbard.

“The Green Team has clearly aligned behind Faith,” says Fuchs, an H.D. Woodson High School teacher, who lives in Ward 5. “And the Green Team, to me, is DFER.”

But for Ronald Thompson, Gibson Hubbard’s donors matter less than her work around education.

“I understand Faith just came out of the Bowser administration, but she had a record before that,” says Thompson, a Ward 5 resident and organizer for Greater Greater Washington. “Faith has a record and resume of saying I want to see more neighborhood schools.” (GGW endorsed Parker, and Thompson is speaking on his own behalf.) Gibson Hubbard did not return a phone call seeking comment.

As for Parker: The current SBOE rep in Ward 5 who defeated DFER’s candidate in 2018 and who has an endorsement from WTU (DFER’s natural enemy), seems like an obvious opponent for the pro-charter group. Unlike his rivals in the Ward 5 Council race, Parker also has expressed support for weakening the current set-up for mayoral control of schools.

But Parker also has contributions from Bradley and other charter school executives and teachers—and not just in 2022. His 2018 SBOE campaign ended in debt. And in order to help pay off what he owed vendors, education reformers threw him a fund raiser in 2019. Bradley is at the top of the list of donors.

Scott Pearson, then the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, also chipped in $200. So did Naomi Shelton, who is now the CEO of the National Charter Collaborative, and Josh Henderson, former government relations liaison for the PSCB. Sekou Biddle, a former councilmember who taught at KIPP DC before becoming the charter’s director of community outreach, also contributed.

As an aside, the Office of Campaign Finance found several record keeping and accounting errors in Parker’s 2018 campaign, including large cash withdrawals and transfers from the campaign’s account to Parker’s personal account. Parker and his treasurer, Theodora Brown, provided explanations and worked to fix the issues. OCF’s auditor determined that the campaign hadn’t acted unethically, and that the errors “could be attributed to a lack of internal control procedures.” OCF ultimately suspended the fines and recommended Parker and Brown attend additional campaign finance training, which they did, Parker says.

During an interview this week, Parker framed the 2019 fundraiser as a way to build relationships and trust. “I was paying out of my own pocket to pay vendors, and I didn’t want to just leave people with a bill,” he says, in a subtle dig at Orange, who still owes multiple vendors from his campaigns in years past.

“Since that time, my work on the SBOE speaks for itself,” Parker adds. “I don’t think education reformers are coalescing behind me.”

But Parker’s detractors say his day job with Achievement Network, a nonprofit that produces and promotes standardized tests, is more evidence of his ties to DFER’s priorities; they also point to his lack of support for a moratorium on charter school openings. Gibson Hubbard, on the other hand, does support a moratorium.

Fuchs, a fierce critic of the sort of tests ANet pushes, doesn’t get hung up on those points.

“He’s saying the stuff I want to hear, so I’m hoping for the best,” she says. “[Endorsing Parker] wasn’t a tough choice for the union.”

Fuchs says she admired Gibson Hubbard’s work as the first chief student advocate appointed by the SBOE. But she adds that she is unable to forgive Gibson Hubbard’s support for Bowser’s plan to reopen schools during the pandemic.

“I was like, ‘she’s doing great work, advocating for parents,’” Fuchs says. “And then she took a job with the mayor and started toeing the party line. If you’re hanging out with Bowser, you’re not hanging out with me.”

This article has been updated with the amount of money the LGBTQ Victory Fund PAC has spent supporting Salah Czapary.