Minor Oversight How closely should elected officials be watching charter schools?

Freedom of Choice: Nida and colleagues make no bones about their pro-charter bias.
Darrow Montgomery

These days, more than 22,000 kids—nearly one out of every three public-school students in this town—attend charter schools. The District plans to spend an estimated $366 million in taxpayer funds next fiscal year to run them.

Weighing in on how that huge chunk of District change is spent is a pair of suburbanites, two of the seven members of the Public Charter School Board, and some of the city’s elected officials don’t like it. Hence the Great Charter School Backlash of 2008.

Last week, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, with a heavy assist from Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, introduced legislation that would place new curbs on the growth of charters in the District, as LL wrote they would last month (“Losing Their Religion,” 5/30).

The centerpiece of the initiative, though, would change the way the body that authorizes charter schools is assembled. Members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the organization that both oversees all 55 existing charters and has the authority to grant new ones, are selected through a process that has federal authorities submitting a list of nominees to the mayor, which the mayor chooses from, with “consultation” (not ratification) from the D.C. Council.

Gray & Co. want that authority solely in the hands of the District, with the mayor making appointments of District residents to be approved by the council.

A mere power grab? “They just can’t stand the fact that this exists and that they don’t have any control over it,” says Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Education (FOCUS), the city’s leading charter advocacy group.

For each vacancy on the board, the Secretary of Education draws up a list of three names generally drawn from the charter community. The result has been that charter-board members over the years have generally had connections to groups with financial, organizational, or ideological interests in seeing charter schools proliferate. Among the current membership:

• Vice chair Anthony J. Colon is a founding member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a national charter advocacy group; in February, he was named interim president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, an organization devoted to pushing the expansion of charters and vouchers. The Web site for his consulting firm bills him as “one of the most widely-recognized leaders in the school choice and education reform movements.” He’s a Maryland resident.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the “New Democrat” group that got famous in the ’90s by upsetting liberal orthodoxy. Charter schools—upsetting to liberal orthodoxy—are among the group’s favored causes. He lives in Alexandria.

• Like Marshall, Brian W. Jones has also been associated with a right-leaning think tank, having led the Center for New Black Leadership in the mid-’90s. That now-defunct outfit was affiliated with the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based organization that, according to its Web site, “brings conservative and free market ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation.” Those ideas include charters and vouchers, natch.

Lawrence C. Patrick III used to head a group called the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a school-choice advocacy outfit formed in 1999, and is a former chair of the Charter School Leadership Council. Patrick also sits on the boards of a Las Vegas charter school funded by tennis star Andre Agassi and the National Charter Schools Institute, a group “dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of charter public schools.”

Karl Jentoft has deep ties to the local charter movement. He was founding board member of the Capital City Public Charter School and also served on the board of the E. L. Haynes charter school in Columbia Heights. He also had a stint on an obscure city body called the D.C. Public Charter School Credit Enhancement and Direct Loan Funds Committee, which oversees city funds to finance charter school improvements.

• Chairman Tom Nida, a banker by trade, helped pioneer charter school lending in the city while at City First Bank. From 1999 until joining the board in 2003, Nida estimates he helped finance more than 25 schools. He also sat on the board of—and helped save from insolvency—the Arts and Technology Academy, a Lincoln Heights charter. Since then, Nida has become arguably the top expert in the country on charter-school financing and how lending to charters can be a profitable business for banks.

With all those incestuous connections, how can we trust the board to regulate charters?

Take the case of Joe Bruno, who since 2003 has run Building Hope, a local outfit that assists charters in organizing, financing, and overseeing construction and renovation projects. Among the schools that Building Hope has assisted over the years are Capital City, which Jentoft helped found, and various schools that Nida had helped finance, including the Arts and Technology Academy. United Bank, Nida’s current employer, is listed on Building Hope’s Web site as a lending partner. (Nida says he has had no involvement with United’s charter deals since joining the board.)

Bruno’s outfit, of course, continues to assist charter schools overseen by the charter board. But more than that, Bruno now sits on the board of the Center City Public Charter School, the outfit hoping to take over seven failing parochial schools this fall. At a May 29 meeting, Bruno presented Center City’s application to the charter board. Neither Bruno, Nida, nor Jentoft made any mention of any previous relationship.

Nida says he and his colleagues are absolutely scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest and that the web of relationships is unavoidable.

“You have only a handful of players who play key roles,” he says. “It’s not that big of an industry. People tend to get connected here.” Avoiding conflicts, he says, “depends on the matter before us and the passage of time.” Recusal isn’t necessary barring a personal relationship with an issue at hand.

For instance, Nida and Jentoft both recused themselves from a recent decision to allow the Potomac Lighthouse charter to move to a building in Northeast near Providence Hospital in a deal financed by the nonprofit Charter Schools Development Corp. Nida sits on that group’s board, and Jentoft consulted on the project.

If any body is responsible for the poor charter oversight, say charter advocates, it isn’t the Public Charter School Board; it’s the old D.C. Board of Education, which was also given chartering authority originally.

FOCUS recently distributed a chart detailing the relative academic achievement of traditional public schools, Board of Ed-chartered schools, and the charter-board schools. According to the data, where students at charter-board schools score significantly better than DCPS kids on reading and math, children at Board of Ed-chartered schools score roughly the same or worse than DCPS students.

Those data appear aimed at the councilmember most critical of charters—Wells, who happened to be sitting on the school board while subpar schools were being chartered. A scathing editorial in Monday’s Washington Post, for instance, parroted that line in taking down the Gray legislation as a “mean-spirited proposal” that “threatens to undo one of the few good-news stories in Washington education.”

Wells defends his record on the Board of Education, saying he not only voted to charter fewer schools than any of his colleagues—not more than two or three, he says—but that he led efforts to have the board give up its chartering authority, which it voted to do in 2006. He admits the board did a “piss-poor job” with its charters.

Post editorial board member Jo-Ann Armao, who wrote the slam, “took a cheap shot,” Wells says, but he’s not surprised by the hardball rhetoric: “I’ve really kind of taken a stick, and I’ve prodded the tiger.”

What’s in a Slate Name?

Four years ago, a group of local activists figured out the key to hauling in votes in the usually anonymous Democratic State Committee races.

In a masterstroke of political branding, a group of local Howard Dean activists deemed their 2004 slate “Running Against Bush.” Call it a marketing coup: Buoyed undoubtedly by their anti-W moniker (and by LL’s endorsement at the time, natch), the Running Against Bush slate snagged almost a dozen seats on the state committee away from the established party hacks running as the “Victory 2004” slate, ousting party chair A. Scott Bolden in the process.

This year, with no George W. Bush to run against, local party candidates are hoping to rebottle lightning. Most of the former Running Against Bushies—the ones running for another four-year term, anyway—are again looking to unify around the enemy, aligning themselves with a slate deemed “Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain.”

This time around the players associated with the slate aren’t all insurgent types. For instance, the guy taking credit for coming up with the slate’s name is none other than Arrington Dixon, the former council chair and old political hand—about as far from an insurgent as you can get in this town. Also on board the Obama4Unity slate are such longtime District politicos as Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, Betty Smalls, Wanda Lockridge, and Kemry Hughes.

Dixon, who has run a computer and telecom outfit since leaving public service, says his technological background played a role in the styling of the slate’s moniker, what with its no-spaces rendering. In a phone conversation, Dixon dropped tech terms like “string” and “delimiter” on LL by way of explaining the unorthodox orthography.

“Strings are a part of computer talk,” he says. “It’s sort of a high-tech approach.” Also playing into the moniker: election-board restrictions on the length of the slate name.

The slate’s competition comes from an outfit styling themselves “Obama for D.C.” Simple, straightforward—what’s not to like? Well, for one thing, folks are complaining that it’s generating confusion with the group D.C. for Obama, which is the main grassroots outfit supporting the Illinois senator in the District. That organization, as it happens, is endorsing the Obama4Unity slate, with D.C. for Obama president Ian Martinez standing for a Ward 1 committeeman spot on the Obama4Unity slate, not the Obama for D.C. slate.

Jeffrey Richardson, a Running Against Bush vet who chairs the Obama4Unity campaign committee, says the first part of the slate’s name is the important part. “It’s a unity slate,” he says, “Obama and unity being the two biggest things bringing us together.”

Political Potpourri

• Took you long enough, honey!

At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz has finally announced her re-election bid, in an unsurprising but highly anticipated announcement from the four-term incumbent.

The announcement was made in a low-key fashion: The news reached LL in the form of a press release issued by the D.C. Republican Party just after 5 p.m. Monday, with a 1,500-word statement from the candidate attached.

Wait a minute: Why is the party making Schwartz’ announcements for her? LL knows Schwartz is pretty much the only viable GOP candidate in town, but can’t her own campaign handle it? After all, there is another Republican, Patrick Mara, running. (And minutes before LL’s Tuesday deadline, Mara announced in an e-mail that he’d raised an astounding $50,125 in two weeks.)

Well, just because the announcement’s been made doesn’t mean there’s a campaign, per se. Schwartz says she’s yet to plan a formal kickoff—or any other campaign event, for that matter. “I haven’t thought that far ahead….The only thing I’ve done thus far is pick up my petitions and written that speech. Now I have to do the other things.”

Paul Craney, the party’s executive director, says the e-mail was merely to pass on the announcement. “I know it’s a technicality,” he says, “but there is a difference.”

Though Schwartz’s relaxed entry into the race would appear to reflect a case of spring fever, she’s at least saying the right things about facing a motivated field of challengers that thus far includes independent candidates Michael A. Brown, Adam Clampitt, and Dee Hunter, plus Mara. “I wanted to get my petitions and start getting that on the road,” she says.

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Our Readers Say

"Paul Craney, the party’s executive director, says the e-mail was merely to pass on the announcement. “I know it’s a technicality,” he says, “but there is a difference.”"

Mr. Craney: Can you please explain the difference? Because there isn't one. What you did was certainly unethical, and probably a violation of finance regulations.
Dude, seriously, you forgot to mention that the "Obama for D.C.” Slate is actually made up of Clintonistas. Um, I can't recall one of them endorsing or supporting Obama. Isn't that just a bit ironic?
Bendygirl, you are actually incorrect, because I can think of members of that group who were actually supporting Senator Obama. The truth is that a certain group was approached to be part of the slate and the others formed their own slate. What should really be discussed is how any of these folks honestly represent the supposed change that their candidate is supposed to be behind. How is it change when you have a bunch of political veterans running? I guess its the same issue that a campaign by a Senator who ran for Congress and has been a politician for over 10 years and which is run by veterans who average well over 10 years in the political field and is for a candidate who talks about unity but has never been in the forefront of a bipartisan effort is avoiding as well.

Now thats change we can believe in, a change from not lying to not saying anything at all.
Hey Double D, not only are you WRONG, well, your comment denegrades the amazing work of folks like Kemry Hughes and Gaby Frasier who travelled and campaigned for Senator Clinton. I was also a supporter of Dodd until he dropped out, but you probably forgot there were more choices than 2 in this past primary.

Change isn't about words, it's about deeds and I for one am thrilled to be no the same slate as folks like Gaby and Kemry as well as those who've worked for Senator Obama like Kimberly Morton, Chair of DC for Obama, or Ian Martinez, Alan Bray and Courtney Chapin all of whom now work for the campaign full time.

I hope that if you're a real D, that you work on that Togetherness thing. I'm proud that Senator Clinton ran, and I'm thrilled with an Obama presidency. I figure, it really comes down to TOGETHER, YES WE CAN. We can do it on the national level by making Virginia Blue but even more importantly, we can make democracy REAL for DC Democrats. And this is really this is the most important thing of all.

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