Malcolm E. “Mike” Peabody began lobbying to establish charter schools in the District nearly two decades ago. At the time, D.C. charters were just a concept; now they are a thriving part of the city’s education landscape, serving nearly half the children in D.C. schools.
“Who’da thunk?” said Peabody, an octogenarian real estate developer, at a March gala honoring his advocacy. “I certainly never imagined we would get to this level so fast.”
Peabody is a descendant of an old New England family: His grandfather, Endicott Peabody, founded the prestigious Groton School, and his brother, also named Endicott Peabody, served as governor of Massachusetts. Peabody came to Washington in the late 1960s to work in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He saw improving the city’s schools as an issue of civil rights. In 1996, he founded Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS, to lobby for alternatives to a dysfunctional public school system. Around that time, Newt Gingrich — then speaker of the House — began pushing for legislation to allow charter schools in the District. Peabody lobbied for that bill, which passed as the School Reform Act of 1995, and then became a fixture advocating for charters at hearings at the D.C. Council and on Capitol Hill.
FOCUS became one of the most visible and aggressive voices advocating on behalf of charter schools in the city, demanding equal funding and fair access to city-owned buildings. Peabody served as chairman of the FOCUS board until stepping down in March to tackle campaign finance reform, another issue about which he cares deeply.
Even early on, when only a few hundred students were enrolled in D.C. charters, Peabody believed that choice would change public education in the city. “We have a revolution going on,” Peabody told the Washington Times in 1998, “and no one knows about it.”
It was a time when few parents or politicians understood what charter schools were, said Josh Kern, who co-founded Thurgood Marshall Academy — a law-themed charter high school — in 2001. Peabody played a key role in spreading the word.
“People don’t appreciate now how hard that kind of education was,” Kern said, adding that Peabody provided advice and friendship to many of the early charter school founders. “It was a new concept, unfamiliar, and people had a hard time grasping it.”
While Peabody says charters have made an important difference in Washington, he thinks more needs to be done, especially in working to close the achievement gap between poor children and their middle-class peers.
At the gala in his honor, Peabody called for the creation of a citywide commission that would study how the city can change the prospects of its neediest kids — not only in charter schools but in traditional public schools, too.
“I would like the two to compete with each other,” Peabody said. “Competition seems to do a very good job. I think it would be too bad for the charter schools to take over the whole city.”