DC Education Leaders and Campaign Money, Part 2: Lucrative Influences

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at David Grosso’s contributors to his current campaign. Grosso is chair of the council’s education committee and thus wields influence over public education policy in DC.

Here, I took a look at recent donations of $100 or more to DC politicians from education advocacy organizations and people associated with education issues, using the DC office of campaign finance database.

Using that DC database as well as the Federal Election Commission database, I also tried to discover who DC education leaders have supported politically over time, including Jennifer Niles, our deputy mayor for education (DME); Abigail Smith, our former DME; Kaya Henderson, DCPS chancellor; Nathaniel Beers, COO of DCPS; Scott Pearson, head of the DC charter board; and individual charter board members as well as people associated with DC charter schools.

As far as I have been able to see, politicians in wards with some of the highest concentrations of charter schools—wards 4, 7, and 8—have received the most campaign contributions from donors with ties to education reform and charter schools. This is not because no other people are running for office in the city. Rather, it appears to be tied to a sheer concentration of charter interests. In Ward 4, for instance, 15 of 26 elementary schools; 7 of 14 middle schools; and 4 of 6 high schools are run by charters. In Ward 7, 11 of 23 elementary schools; 4 of 6 middle schools; and 5 of 6 high schools are charters. And in Ward 8, 15 of 28 elementary schools; 7 of 10 middle schools; and 4 of 6 high schools are charters. (The stats are from the DME for use by the cross sector task force, available here by scrolling down.)

Also, Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd is a member of the council’s education committee and running for re-election.

The relationship between the donors, charter schools, and advocacy groups is complex. For instance, a list of sponsors of the annual gala for local charter advocacy group FOCUS contains individual political donors as well as corporate political donors. But FOCUS gala sponsors also include individuals and companies that did not donate to politicians recently or at all, but are nonetheless associated with supporting charter schools in some way (i.e., MCN Build, which is a participant in a May 31 summit on DC charter facilities that FOCUS is sponsoring).

I also found multiple, overlapping affiliations of some donors and organizations. Maura Marino, for instance, is a board member for DC Prep and Ingenuity Prep and also the managing director of the NewSchools Venture Fund, which helps fund charter schools and has a number of connections locally to both policymakers as well as schools and education reform groups.

Likewise, J. Fernando Barrueta is real estate investor and a board member of Building Hope, an organization that provides financing for charter buildings. But Building Hope also has a partnership with the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) called the Charter School Incubator Initiative, to help foster and site charter schools in DC. And Building Hope’s president, S. Joseph Bruno, serves on the board of FOCUS, which also includes Joshua Kern and Karl Jentoft, employees of local charter developer TenSquare, which has gifted David Grosso with more than $4000 this election cycle (as detailed in Part 1).

Thus far, I found no donations (or nothing recent) to local politicians from DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson; DCPS COO Nathaniel Beers; DME Jennifer Niles; or charter school board members besides Scott Pearson. I also found no recent donations from the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) or individual DCPS schools. (As noted in Part 1, the WTU has given only two direct and recent donations to DC politicians: $1500 to Paul Zukerberg for attorney general in October 2014 and $500 to Renee Bowser in March 2015.)

That said, the connections I did find between DC public education interests–namely, charter schools and their advocacy organizations–and local politicians’ coffers illustrate the potentially wide-ranging influence of unelected people and groups in DC public education.

For instance, DC charter board head Scott Pearson has donated more than $100,000 to politicians both in and outside DC since 2000. Since becoming the head of DC’s charter board in 2012, Pearson has donated more than $10,000 to political campaigns and interests outside DC, including donations to Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, both charter supporters (the latter responsible for a congressional requirement that charter schools receive first rights on closed DCPS buildings).

Most recently in DC, Scott Pearson has given money to campaigns of the chair of the state board of education, Jack Jacobson ($200), and Tierra Jolly, who is running for her Ward 8 board of education seat ($200). Pearson also gave $500 to the campaign of Vince Gray, running to regain his old Ward 7 council seat. (Pearson’s daughter, who attends private school, gave $500 to Vince Gray’s campaign as well, as did Pearson’s wife, who like Pearson has donated tens of thousands to political campaigns over the course of nearly two decades.)

Developer Jair Lynch–whose company is a participant in the May 31 FOCUS charter facilities summit–gave Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd $500 this election cycle, while gifting Todd with $500 a year ago as well. Brandon Todd represents Ward 4 on the council and is also an education committee member.

Another participant in that FOCUS charter facilities summit, Shinberg Levinas Architects, gave David Grosso $100 for his re-election (as detailed in Part 1). Perhaps reflecting aspirations for charter school location in Ward 8, Shinberg Levinas also gave $500 in January 2016 to LaRuby May (in addition to $500 in April 2015) for May’s re-election bid for the Ward 8 council seat.

Yet another participant in that May 31 FOCUS facilities summit, GCS, Inc., a local construction firm that has worked on a number of DCPS schools, gave $500 to Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd in January 2015 and another $500 in November 2015.

Michael Gewirz, a local developer who was a sponsor of the 2015 FOCUS gala, gave David Garber, an at large council aspirant running against Vince Orange, $500 in February 2016. Gewirz’s company partner, Steven Gewirz, gave Garber $200 in January 2016.

Brett Greene, [5/21/16: correction who was] on the board of directors of FOCUS, recently donated $1000 to David Grosso’s campaign, as well as $500 to Yvette Alexander’s campaign for her Ward 7 council seat; $1000 to Vince Orange, running for his at large council seat; and $250 to LaRuby May, for her efforts to hold on to her Ward 8 council seat. May chaired the board of a DC charter school, Community Prep. Alexander sits on the council’s education committee.

The founder of FOCUS and its former board member (and Groton graduate) Malcolm Peabody gave $500 to Vince Gray’s Ward 7 campaign; Peabody’s wife also gave the Vince Gray campaign $500.

FOCUS lobbyist Michael Musante gave Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd’s campaign $250. Since 2004, Musante has also donated more than $1000 to politicians outside DC, including former Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, a charter advocate.

Former DME Abigail Smith, chair of the board of EL Haynes charter school, gave $150 to Vince Gray’s campaign for the Ward 7 council seat occupied by Yvette Alexander.

The founder and head of the CityBridge Foundation, Katherine Bradley, gave the campaign of Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans $500 as well as $500 to Ward 4 councilmember and education committee member Brandon Todd. Bradley has also gifted Brandon Todd with campaign donations in a prior cycle as has her son, who also most recently gifted $500 to Vince Gray for his Ward 7 council seat run. The CityBridge Foundation supports local charter schools.

Laura Slover, the chief executive officer of PARCC (yes, that test), gave $50 to state board chair Jack Jacobson for his bid for his seat, and $50 for Tierra Jolly’s bid for her Ward 8 seat on the state board.

Beatriz Otero, who founded CentroNia, an education organization in DC, gave $500 to Vincent Gray for his Ward 7 council seat bid. Otero was deputy mayor for health and human services under Gray; CentroNia is one of the local groups, many of them charter schools, in which local investment firm Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) invests. (The president of Flamboyan and founder of DC School Reform Now, Kristin Ehrgood, sits on the VPP board and recently gifted David Grosso with $1000.)

Marc Battle, a board member of Ingenuity Prep, gave $200 to Ward 4’s Brandon Todd in January 2015.

J. Fernando Barrueta, real estate investor and board member of Building Hope, an organization that provides financing for charter buildings, gave $500 to Vincent Orange in January 2016. Building Hope gave FOCUS $15,000 in the last two years toward its annual gala and is also part of the May 31 charter facilities summit that FOCUS is sponsoring.

The founder and former head of Friendship Public Charter School, Donald Hense, recently gave $1000 to the campaign of Robert White, who is running for Vincent Orange’s at large council seat. In October 2014, Hense gave the same amount to White.

Virginia car dealer Robert Hisaoka, who has gifted Teach For America (TFA) with hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years, gave Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans $500 this cycle and previously gifted Evans with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Jack Evans ran several times for mayor; his children attended private school. TFA has been at the forefront of putting teachers into charter schools and has deep ties to DCPS.

The DC office of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a charter proponent group that has a political action committee (PAC), has recently given money to a variety of DC campaigns, including that for state board chair Jack Jacobson ($200); Ward 8 state board member Tierra Jolly ($200); and Ward 8 councilmember LaRuby May ($250), in addition to Ward 7 board of education member Karen Williams ($200). DFER also gave $1000 to the political action committee Ward Eight Democrats in February 2016.

But DFER’s largest donations in DC thus far appear to have gone to Ward 4 councilmember and education committee member Brandon Todd, gifted with almost $1000 from DFER since February 2015 along with an additional $500 in December 2015.

All told, DFER’s recent donation patterns in DC match the proliferation of charter schools in wards 4, 7 and 8.

(DC’s office of DFER is headed by Catharine Bellinger, who personally gifted David Grosso with $200 for his re-election bid.)

How DFER’s DC PAC came by its funds is also pertinent:

The DC campaign finance website shows donations to the “independent expenditure committee” (i.e., the PAC) of DC’s branch of DFER from April 21, 2015 through March 8, 2016, Many of the donations are in small amounts ($5-$10). And many appear to have been made on just six days in that time period, all in the early part of 2016.

This suggests that there was an organized effort by DFER to get donations in that relatively short time span.

Moreover, there appears to be a few common threads in those DC DFER PAC donors: venture capital/banking; real estate; computer/data services for schools; and consulting firms for communications and hiring and training “leaders” (however that is defined).

The list of donors to the PAC for DC DFER is also interesting for the number of people who do not live in DC. Of the 85 donors listed for that time period, for instance, I counted 40 not in DC at all. Of those, amid a smattering from the DC suburbs, I counted donors from New York, California, Utah, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

The most obvious common denominator among all DFER PAC donors, however, is their connection to DC charter schools.

For instance, Katherine Bradley, the head of the CityBridge Foundation, a local organization that funds local charter schools, gave DFER $15,000 on March 8, 2016. Then there is Leroy Eakin, a real estate developer who serves on the Federal City Council, is chair of the DC Prep board, and helped sponsor the annual FOCUS gala in 2015 ($10,000); the communications staffer for the DC charter board (identified in the listing as self-employed), Tomeika Bowden ($50); Victor Reinoso, the first deputy mayor for education, board member of EL Haynes charter school, advisor for the NewSchools Venture Fund (a charter financing group), and a partner at Bellwether (a charter school think tank that also employs a DC charter board member, Sara Mead) ($200); Jacque Patterson, who is associated with the new Rocketship campus in Ward 8 ($100); Ramona Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which has brought a lawsuit against the city for inequitable financing for DC charter schools ($25); Peter Winik, a lawyer and board member for Ingenuity Prep ($250); Maura Marino, a board member for DC Prep, Ingenuity Prep, and the managing director of the NewSchools Venture Fund, which helps fund charter schools ($250); William McCarthy, president of the AppleTree Institute, which sponsors DC’s AppleTree charter school ($100); Martha Cutts, head of Washington Latin (not identified in the listing) ($5); and Roberta Colton, board chair of the Paul charter school ($100).

Other DFER PAC donors with DC connections (but no obvious ties to a local charter school) include real estate developer Floyd Davis Camalier (who also gave $1000 to David Grosso) ($250); computer consultant Dawn Bellinger, who shares the same Arlington, Virginia, address as Catharine Bellinger, the head of the DC chapter of DFER ($500); Maya Martin, executive director of Parents Advocating for Voices in Education (a charter promoting group) and a consultant for the NewSchools Venture Fund, a charter funding organization that Maura Marino (see above) is a director of ($200); Bethany Little, an advisor with EducationCounsel, which was recently hired by the deputy mayor for education to produce research reports for the cross sector task force ($50); Jonathan Arnold Consulting ($260; April 2015), whose head, Joy Russell, gave $100 more in March 2016; Josh Boots, whose local firm EmpowerK12 provides data services for schools ($50); Jason Andrean, a local banker with Capital One ($200); Benjamin LaBolt, founder of the Incite Agency, a local marketing and communications firm ($50); Massie Ritsch, a local TFA executive ($100); Mikaela Seligman, a consultant with AchieveMission, which supports TFA ($100); Eric Lavin, a former TFA teacher working for the local Aspen Innovation Lab, which supports charter schools ($10). (The last piece is related to the Aspen Institute, which among other things supports investment in charter schools.)

Other larger DFER PAC donations in that same period include $50 from Jennifer Walmer, the director of the Colorado DFER; $100 from self-identified DC volunteer Kathe Williamson; $100 from Chevy Chase, MD, lawyer Carolyn Bou; $200 from AU professor Sarah Snyder; $100 from blogger and Georgetown University adjunct Christopher Chambers; and $500 from Ampersand Education, which supports and funds charter schools.

Finally, the largest contributor to the DFER PAC in DC is its parent organization in New York, Education Reform Now, which gave the PAC $18,000 in April 2015 and another $5000 in January 2016.

(Next up: looking at the field of elected officials in DC running for office this year, including council members and state board of education members.)

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