Gray works to firm up donor support for education reforms

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 7:09 PM

They are men of the same generation - both 67 - and they share the last name - Gray. But until they met for the first time on a Sunday evening earlier this month, that was about all C. Boyden and Vincent C. had in common. That was when the patrician Republican and former White House counsel introduced the Democrat and presumptive mayor-elect from Ward 7 as "my cousin Vinny" to a gathering of education philanthropists and reform advocates over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at his Georgetown home.

It was a light moment in the midst of a serious outreach effort, engineered by the Gray campaign. The objective was to reassure the influential network of private foundations - which have poured an estimated $20 million into D.C public schools over the past four years - that Vincent C. Gray is serious about sustaining the reforms launched by outgoing Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. With the city facing a budget shortfall that could reach $400 million by 2012, Gray has a major stake in convincing private donors that the District remains an important investment.

Gray's efforts so far have won him the benefit of the doubt from donors leery of his campaign's heavy support from teachers unions and other interests opposed to Rhee. Gray allayed some of the concerns with his decision to ask Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to name Rhee's deputy, Kaya Henderson, as interim chancellor, a decision several donors urged Gray to make.

"My sense is that people are going to give him time to demonstrate that he is going to maintain the momentum and direction," said Michael Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, who attended the meeting at C. Boyden Gray's home.

A perceived sea change

Rhee was a rock star in the philanthropic sector, which was excited by her willingness to challenge the influence of teachers' unions and link teacher pay to the academic progress of students. A group of national philanthropists, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, pledged $64.5 million over the next several years to underwrite salary increases and performance-pay provisions in the hard-fought contract Rhee signed with the Washington Teachers' Union last spring. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested an unspecified amount in an online professional development platform for teachers, customized to their individual needs.

Washington-based Fight for Children, founded by philanthropist Joseph E. Robert Jr., contributed to the $4 million start-up costs for IMPACT, the new evaluation system that uses standardized test scores as part of its assessment for some teachers and can trigger dismissals for those with low scores.

But Gray's defeat of Fenty in last month's Democratic primary sent tremors through the donor community because of his union support, and his clashes with Rhee over her headstrong leadership style that he believed excluded important community voices.

When Rhee declared a day after the election that Fenty's defeat was "devastating" for the city, making her resignation a near-certainty, there were "people who had the impression that the sky was falling," said Joshua Kern, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy public charter high school in Ward 8 and a key education adviser to Gray.

Reaching out to funders

Last spring's controversy over financing of the teachers' contract showed that private money does not come to public coffers without strings. Under terms of the grants financing the contract, the foundations have the right to reconsider their commitments if there is a change in the school system leadership that materially changes the direction of reform efforts.

What followed in the weeks after the primary was a quiet and concerted effort, led by Kern and Reuben Charles, Gray's campaign operations director, to convince the local and national donor community that Gray was committed to continuing the work that Rhee and Fenty began.

Kern first reached out to Kathleen deLaski, the Walton Foundation's senior program officer for education, who had served on his school's board of trustees. They held a series of meetings with major donors, including Broad and CityBridge Foundation, headed by Katherine Bradley, a major Rhee supporter. According to Kern, their major concern was any potential weakening of IMPACT, which evaluates teachers against a detailed series of benchmarks involving classroom practice and student achievement. This past summer 75 teachers were dismissed for low IMPACT scores. An estimated 700 others were judged "minimally effective" and face dismissal if they do not improve this year.

For Charles, the overture to the funders started at Mann Elementary in Northwest Washington, the school his two children attend. Charles had gotten to know Ashley Allen, head of fundraising for the Mann PTA and a partner at Endeavor Group, a firm that offers strategic and legal advice to businesses and philanthropists. Several education donors are among Allen's clients.

Allen and Charles said they had engaged in a running debate during the campaign. Allen, a Fenty and Rhee supporter, acknowledged that she was in the "sky is falling" camp, dubious about the fate of education reform under a Gray mayoralty. Charles was alarmed by what he saw as a cartoonish view of Gray taking hold in some parts of the city as someone prepared to halt the Rhee-era reforms.

He also wanted to temper what he called "an arrogance in the fundraising community," and a failure to recognize that stakeholders from the communities most effected by their largess need to be at the table.

'Some minds were opened'

Allen and Charles put together a dinner meeting for Gray and the donors at Allen's Spring Valley home on Sept. 19. Lomax, Bradley and deLaski attended. Other guests, according to Allen, included Joe Scantlebury, a senior policy officer for the Gates Foundation; Kimberly Statham, former deputy D.C. state superintendent of education and partner with NewSchools Venture Fund; and Skip McCoy, director of programmatic initiatives for Fight for Children.

Over beef fillets and chicken, Gray laid out his ideas for school improvement, which include a new emphasis on both early childhood and career and technical education. He also explained that his victory was not a repudiation of education reform, but of a style of leadership that excluded critical parts of the community.

The questioning was polite but pointed. Lomax asked if Gray had "some sort of obligation to the union" because of its heavy financial support; Gray said he felt beholden to no one. Asked by another guest if he planned to rehire the 266 teachers laid off last fall, Gray said he did not, although he did renew his criticism of Rhee for reconfiguring the school system's budget to make the layoffs more extensive than they would otherwise have been.

Gray also told the group, according to Charles, that he was committed to a fair evaluation of teachers. "Teachers who do not perform do not deserve to be teaching," Gray said.

While Kaya Henderson's name did not come up during dinner, Allen said, several guests mentioned her during informal conversations afterward, with donors talking about the importance of continuity and the need to retain Rhee's leadership team.

Charles was heartened by the meeting, which he said was "moving from uncertainty and mistrust to clarity."

Others were more tentative. "There was deep skepticism at the beginning of the meeting and abiding skepticism at the end, but some minds were opened," said one guest who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his organization's relationship with the likely new mayor.

Allen followed up with the Oct. 17 meeting at the home of C. Boyden Gray, an Endeavor client. A broader group of funders and advocates (including Julie Rogers, president of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation; John Hill, chief executive of the Federal City Council; and Walter Issacson, president of the Aspen Institute and chairman of the board of Teach for America). Some said they came away impressed with the breadth of Gray's knowledge of education issues and his seriousness about continuing the work of Rhee and Fenty.

"I came into the meeting with a lot of concerns and I was impressed," Issacson said. "I came way feeling better for the prospects of school reform."

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