How much money have you–as a parent, teacher, or student in DC’s publicly funded schools–given to political causes around public education in 2018: $5? $50? $500? $5000?
How much money did your spouse/parents/children/relatives give?
How much money did any union at your public school give?
It is not easy to know all these answers–but chances are good the total is less than $522,393.74.
That amount–$522,393.74–is what I calculated was given between January 1, 2018 and October 26 to the independent expenditure committee (IEC) of the DC chapter of the education advocacy organization Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). If you add in what was given to DFER DC’s political action committee (PAC) in the same time–about $7,400–you get almost $530,000 donated in just 10 months in the name of education reform in DC. Most of those 2018 donors appear to be outside DC.
Lest anyone says $522,393.74 in 10 months just for education reform is par for the course in DC political fundraising, let me note that of our city’s 13 registered IECs, only a few had measurable contributions for 2018 listed in our city’s campaign finance database:
Unite Here (a labor and social justice political action committee): $10,400
DC Choice (a political action fund for transgender rights): $15,500
DC Association of Realtors: $99,985.60
So it is that in 2018, DFER DC’s IEC had four times as much in contributions as the rest of DC’s IECs combined. In fact, the amount raised by DFER DC’s IEC in 2018 alone ($522,393.74) represents more than half of the total it has raised since 2015 ($899,532.24).
In addition, those donations given to DFER DC’s IEC in 2018 represent more than all the donations by labor and unions to PACs and IECs in DC in that same time (which I calculated to be more than $300,000). DFER DC’s IEC donations in 2018 are also more than 20 times as much as unions and labor organizations gave to people running for elected office in DC in the same time frame. (I calculated the latter to be about $20,000, using a search of “union” and “labor” for political campaign donations in our city’s campaign finance database–ironically, DFER is listed as a labor organization in some of the accounting.)
More specifically, in 2018 the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) gave $1400 to three DC candidates:
$1000, Jeremiah Lowery, running for an at large council seat (primary), 6/15
$200, Zachary Parker, running for the Ward 5 state board of education seat, 10/9
$200, Emily Gasoi, running for the Ward 1 state board of education seat, 10/17
The WTU’S endorsements are here.
By contrast, DFER DC and/or its PAC gave the following donations to these DC candidates:
$200, Rhonda Henderson, candidate for Ward 4 state board of education, 10/10
$2000, Muriel Bowser, mayor, 6/10
$1500, Phil Mendelson, council chair, 6/10
$1500, Karl Racine, attorney general, 6/7
$500, Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 council member, 6/1
Also in this election cycle, DFER DC and/or its PAC gave
–$500 to Ward 8 Democrats on 2/12/18; $500 on 1/15/18; and $500 on 8/10/17
–$500 to the Do Something Constituents Fund on 8/5/17 (the address for this is 1109 Wahler Place SE, which is owned by Trayon White, Ward 8 council member)
What Is DFER?
DC’s chapter of DFER is one of several state chapters of a national organization of the same name founded in 2007 by hedge fund managers. The rationale behind DFER apparently was to create a well-funded movement within the Democratic party to promote education reform (with an emphasis on testing as a bellwether of quality) and privatizing of public schools (with promotion of choice, creation of charters, and public/private partnerships). As Republicans have historically been more amenable to privatizing public resources, DFER’s work has effectively ensured that education reform and public school privatization have a wider political audience–and thus more assurance of political success.
The connection of hedge funds and other deep pockets to DFER’s work in promoting education reform and privatization isn’t coincidental. Wealthy investors tend to look on civic assets like public schools as investment resources for the picking–with a caveat on scale. As a friend told me years ago, big investors usually take notice only when at least $1 billion in public money is invested in a jurisdiction’s public schools annually.
(Here in DC, we spend close to $2 billion annually on our publicly funded schools.)
DFER also has an associated nonprofit called Education Reform Now, which drafts legislation and education policy. Another associated group, Education Reform Now Advocacy, is (according to this news story) “structured for tax purposes as a ‘social welfare organization’.” That designation apparently provides cover for donors and political activity–only as long as those activities are not the organization’s main activity.
Closer to home, DFER DC has an IEC and a PAC. Both IECs and PACs can accept contributions from donors. As defined by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), independent expenditures are independent of any one candidate or party. Rather, the independent expenditures are used to advocate for something or someone, at the direction of the organization receiving the funds. On the other hand, a political action committee (PAC) can contribute to candidates.
The head of both the national office of DFER as well as Education Reform Now is Shavar Jeffries (who donated $200 on 7/2/18 to Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board of education candidate). A check of the FEC donor database shows that between Jan. 1, 2017 and August 15, 2018, only 17 individuals gave money to the national office of DFER. Most of those contributions were more than $1000 each, for a total of more than $50,000. Most came from New York and California, with the donors working for a variety of investment funds, including Eagle Capital; Sessa Capital; Magnitude Capital; and J.P. Morgan Chase.
Donors to DFER DC’s IEC and PAC
Here are the biggest donors for this election cycle (from fall 2017 through the present) to DFER DC’s IEC:
Carolyn Bou, $200, 10/18/17; $100, 3/8/18; Chevy Chase lawyer
Sarah Snyder, $400, 10/18/17; AU professor
Roberta Colton, $400, 10/18/17; $25, 3/8/18; lawyer, on the board of Paul charter school
Shawn Hardnett, $250, 10/18/17; $50, 3/10/18; $50, 6/7/18; founder of the Statesmen charter school (which was offered a DCPS school outside the RFO process) and board member of Monument Academy; also gave $100 to Ward 6 state board of education candidate Jessica Sutter (3/26/18)
Katherine Venskus, $1,000, 11/1/17; founder of Ampersand Education, an education reform and charter support group; also worked for Rocketship and DFER in Wisconsin
Maya Martin, $250, 11/1/17; founder of PAVE, a local education advocacy group that helped create a charter application; associated with North Star/Statesmen charter school, which was founded by Shawn Hardnett; also gave $200 to Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board of education candidate (4/11/18)
Josh Boots, $500, 12/6/17; $100, 3/9/18; founded EmpowerK12, a data management/research group that works with DC charter schools; also did work for DFER DC (see below); gave $200 to Ward 6 state board candidate Jessica Sutter (8/3/18)
Kathleen Ambrose, $400, 12/6/17; government affairs specialist for TE Connectivity, a technology firm
Kathleen deLaski, $500, 12/6/17; former Thurgood Marshall charter school board member and former employee of the Walton Family Foundation, which promotes and funds charter schools; founded Education Design Lab and worked for the deLaski Foundation, which supports charter schools and education reform
Laura Slover, $200, 12/7/17; former head of PARCC, now head of ed reform group CenterPoint; also gave $200 to Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3 state board of education rep. running for re-election (9/25/18)
Massie Ritsch, $200, 12/7/17; communications guru associated with Teach for America; also did work for DFER DC (see below)
John M. Duff, $5,000, 2/7/18; KIPP DC board member and hedge fund manager/founder; he and his wife, Victoria, each gave $2000 to Mayor Bowser on 3/6/18
Education Reform Now Advocacy ($80,000, 3/8/18; $11,258, 3/13/18 (in kind); $115,000, 4/27/18; $1,040, 5/30/18 (in kind); $1,575, 6/18/18 (in kind); $500, 6/18/18 (in kind); $299.74, 8/11/18); associated with Education Reform Now
Alice Walton, $150,000, 7/6/18 and $40,000, 10/11/18; associated with the Walton Foundation and family and the family business, Wal Mart; the foundation supports education reform and charter schools
SKDKnickerbocker, $50,000, 7/9/18; public affairs firm that also has a great deal of business through DFER DC (see below); my call to them, asking why they donated to DFER DC’s IEC, was not returned
Shavon Collier, $231, 7/20/18; PAVE parent leader and Rocketship parent; also did work for DFER DC (see below)
Capital One Bank, $6000, 10/2/18; the employer of Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board of education candidate; Andrean was also a board member of DFER DC
Carrie Penner, $10,000, 10/11/18; Walton family member and a leader of the Walton Family Foundation, a big charter supporter
Patty Quillin, $50,000, 10/26/18; wife of billionaire Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix and a big charter supporter; together, they started a fund to promote charter schools and the “portfolio” model of governance, which our newly appointed deputy mayor for education, Paul Kihn, has espoused
Local ed reform luminaries who also gave (but a bit less) money to DFER DC’s IEC:
Lea Crusey, former DFER employee, current appointee to the DC charter school board; also gave $200 to Ward 6 state board of education candidate Jessica Sutter (3/20/18)
Sara Mead, former DC charter school board member and employee of Bellwether Education Partners, an education reform advisory group
Christopher Chambers, Georgetown adjunct and former DFER board member; also gave $20 to Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board of education candidate (6/27/18)
Dora Currea, retired banker, Teach for America alum, and Ward 3 state board of education candidate
Maura Marino, board member of Ingenuity Prep, DC Prep, and EL Haynes charter schools and CEO of Education Forward DC, which promotes charter schools in DC; also gave $200 to Ward 1 state board of education candidate Jason Andrean, 8/10/18, and $200 to Ward 6 state board of education candidate Jessica Sutter, 3/20/18
Lannette Woodruff, former state board of education member for Ward 4
Irene Holtzman, executive director of FOCUS, a charter advocacy organization
Jean-Claude Brizard, education advisor to the Gates Foundation, which supports and promotes charter schools; partner at FourPoint Education Group, an education consulting firm; former superintendent, Chicago and Rochester, NY, public schools
Martha Cutts, former head of Washington Latin, one of two DC charter schools appealing the decision in their lawsuit against the city
Here are some notable donors to DFER DC’s PAC in 2018:
Capital One Bank, $250, 10/25/18; employer of Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board of education candidate
Carol Pensky, $100, 6/8/18; Democratic fundraiser and on the board of DC Prep
Edward H. Kaplan, $1400, 6/7/18; developer in Potomac, Maryland; gave Ward 1 state board of education candidate Jason Andrean $200, 3/23/18. Kaplan is a co-owner of 1717 K St. NW, the headquarters for both Arent Fox (a law and lobbying firm with DC charter school clients) as well as Bain, a research group that promotes education reform and school choice. One of Kaplan’s partners in the building is developer Michael Gewirz, who has sponsored the 2015 gala for FOCUS; Gewirz and his brother Steven have given many donations to DC politicians, most recently to mayor Muriel Bowser (Steven; 1/30/18; $2000) and council chair Phil Mendelson (Michael; 6/10/18; $500)
Bethany Little, $50, 6/4/18; works for EducationCounsel (an education policy group), is a member of the cross sector task force and board member of Chavez charter school
Catharine Bellinger, $500, 1/15/18; former executive director of DFER DC; works in public affairs for IDEA charter schools; also gave $200 each to Jason Andrean, Ward 1 state board candidate (4/30); Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 state board candidate (4/30); and Adrian Jordan, Ward 5 state board candidate (8/14)
Education Reform Now Advocacy, $5000, 1/12/18; DFER’s advocacy group
Recent past (before 2018) donors to DFER DC’s PAC read like a who’s who of wealthy charter and education reform interests:
Jason Andrean: banker and Ward 1 candidate for the state board of education
Leroy Eakin: real estate developer; on board of DC Prep and head of EYA, which sold a large parcel of land in Hillcrest to KIPP DC; also gave $500 to Mayor Bowser (1/15/18)
Stephanie Lilley: ran for the state board of education seat in 2014 for Ward 3; on boards of DC charter schools
John Duff: KIPP DC board member and hedge fund manager/founder
Justin Bakewell: works for JP Morgan; supports Teach for America; McLean, Va
John Petry: New York City; on board of directors of Education Reform Now; founded Sessa Capital and co-founded DFER
Katherine Bradley: founder and head of the Citybridge Foundation, big charter donor, and “shadow chancellor”; also gave a lot of money to local candidates, including Ward 1 state board candidate Jason Andrean ($200, 10/17/18); Ward 6 state board candidate Jessica Sutter ($200, 6/12/18); council chair Phil Mendelson ($1500, 3/5/18); and Mayor Bowser ($2000, 10/6/17–Bradley’s son Spencer is also listed as giving Bowser $500 on 10/11/17)
Maura Marino: board member of Ingenuity Prep, DC Prep, and EL Haynes charter schools and CEO of Education Forward DC, which promotes charter schools in DC
Lea Crusey: former DFER employee, current appointee to the DC charter school board
Joseph Williams: New York City; co-founder of DFER
What DFER DC’s IEC Money Has Bought in 2018
The biggest expenditures from DFER DC that I found in DC’s public campaign finance records appear to be from its IEC, which gave money to a variety of businesses and people in 2018.
Here’s a general breakdown of the largest expenditures in 2018 by DFER DC’s IEC:
SKDKnickerbocker: $303,875. This is a PR/public affairs firm that does a lot of work with Democrats
Education Reform Now Advocacy: $24,690. This group is based in New York City and associated with Education Reform Now; the bulk of the payments appear to be for salary or stipends, with some for printing and in kind services
Josh Boots: $6000 on 10/11/18; $6000 on 7/3/18; $6500 on 10/26/17. Boots founded EmpowerK12, a data management group that works with DC charter schools
Massie Ritsch: $15,000 on 7/13/18. Ritsch is a communications guru associated with Teach for America
Carr Marketing: $7546 on 4/17/18 and $5214 on 6/9/18; noted that this was for polling and mailing lists
Whitney W. Burns, $3500 on 10/11/18 and $1125 on 3/8/18; worked as a campaign treasurer; this money was for work as a consultant
A small number of individuals were also given a “salary/stipend” or “independent expenditures” for unspecified work from April through October:
Claudia Huerta, <$300, first payment posted in October**
Maritzelena Chirinos, <$600, first payment posted in October**
Jada Harrell, <$1000, first payment posted in April
Elliot Stryker, <$1000, first payment posted in September
Johnathin Haman, <$1200, first payment posted in October
Kyle Myers, $1800, first payment posted in August
Shavon Collier, $1900; first payment posted in April; PAVE parent leader and Rocketship parent
Elizabeth Duan, $2600; first payment posted in April
Anthony T. Brown, $11,000; first payment posted in April
Lisa McCullers, $15,000; first payment posted in April; PAVE parent leader and Washington Latin parent
(Everyone but those marked with ** has a DC-area address. Huerta has a New York address, and Chirinos has a Baltimore address.)
This was posted also, ostensibly for a DFER staffer:
Erika Harrell, $3200; PAVE parent leader and outreach coordinator for DFER DC; former staffer for DC School Reform Now
Despite this list of names and businesses, it is difficult (if not impossible) to know what exactly all this money is being used for–but this ad seems to be part of that effort.
(This reminds me of what happened last week, when a young woman showed up at my door and handed me a flyer for Ward 6 state board of education candidate Jessica Sutter. When I asked if she was working for Sutter’s campaign as a volunteer, she replied that the campaign had just hired her and was paying her to go door to door. This is not exactly unexpected: the state board of education races in DC have garnered immense amounts of cash this year, with a lot coming from outside DC. See here and here and here for starters.)
The bottom line for DFER DC’s IEC outsize expenditures in 2018 appears to be persuasion, perception, and power. (And who knows–maybe phone banking, too!)
If wealthy people giving to a cause to tilt public education away from the public seems deeply undemocratic, it’s helpful to recall two recent, undemocratic, actions in our public schools:
–No DC citizen voted to have charter schools in our city. While many DC families are happy with their charter school(s) and appreciate the horizons these schools have opened, it is well worth recalling that we did not get charter schools because of popular will or votes. We got them because Congress–a body in which no DC citizen has representation equal to that of the rest of the country–said we had to. (And charmingly decreed that we had to pay for them, too.)
–No unelected DC citizen voted for mayoral control of DCPS. (In fact, there were only 9 people in the entire world who voted for mayoral control of DCPS. They were all members of the city council.)
Through this lens, one could construe DFER DC’s 2018 wealth gathering and deployment not merely as success, but custom!
Too bad for taxpayers and democracy.