Former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson routinely helped well-connected parents — including two senior aides to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — bend or break the rules of the District’s notoriously competitive school lottery to enroll their children at coveted schools, according to a confidential report obtained by The Washington Post.
The report, based on an investigation by the D.C. Inspector General’s Office, describes in remarkable detail how Henderson used her power as head of the school system to place the children of those with political clout at campuses they could not otherwise access through the random lottery, which every year leaves thousands of families on waiting lists for their desired schools.
Inspector General Daniel Lucas found that Henderson misused her authority by giving preferential treatment to seven of 10 people who requested special school placements for their children during the 2015 lottery season. The investigation did not examine the rest of Henderson’s tenure from November 2010 to September 2016.
Henderson openly acknowledged in interviews with investigators that she gave special treatment to the children of government officials. Asked about the help she gave City Administrator Rashad M. Young, a top Bowser cabinet official whose salary is $295,000, Henderson said D.C. officials “do not necessarily get paid as much as we should.”
The former chancellor bestowed such favors even as she dismissed pleas for special consideration from those with less influence, such as a deaf Vietnamese immigrant whose request that her daughter be allowed to attend a school where she could practice sign language was rejected.
The findings could shake public confidence in the city’s school lottery, which has been held up as a national model. It also raises troubling questions for Bowser, whose defense of her cabinet officials’ roles in the scandal is undercut by details in the report.
Henderson did not return calls requesting a comment. A nationally prominent educator, Henderson stepped down at the start of the current school year. She sits on the board of New York City’s Robin Hood Foundation and was recently named a superintendent in residence at the Broad Academy, a professional-development group funded by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad.
According to the report, she told investigators that she was “thoughtful and judicious in her decisions and did not hand out the discretionary placements ‘like candy.’ ” Henderson said she “understood the appearance of impropriety” but “believed she had the discretion to place any student in any DCPS school.”
In an interview Wednesday, Bowser insisted that her top deputies did nothing wrong.
“This is not an investigation of any parent,” the mayor said. “Where the inspector general was pointing to and we have recognized — and have acted — is on a system that is too loose and needs to be tightened up.”
Bowser’s office issued a 30-day moratorium on “discretionary” school transfers while Chancellor Antwan Wilson, Henderson’s successor, crafts new rules. The mayor said that for starters, public officials and the chancellor will have to seek guidance from the city’s ethics board before a discretionary placement is issued for a child of a public official.
Now in its fourth year of operation, the District’s single, citywide school lottery offers parents a chance to win a spot in a school outside their neighborhood if it has unfilled seats.
In a city where the quality of public education varies wildly, the opportunity to switch schools is prized, particularly outside of a few areas west of Rock Creek Park and on Capitol Hill where residents are guaranteed access to high-performing neighborhood schools. The city’s traditional public schools and most charter schools participate in the lottery.
The system — designed by a Nobel Prize-winning economist to level the playing field for families regardless of address, income or connections — is an annual ritual for families in the nation’s capital. Every spring, parents find themselves talking lottery numbers and waiting-list rankings; many walk away unsatisfied. More than 22,000 students entered the lottery this year, and about 13,000 ended up on a waiting list.
Under D.C. regulations, the schools chancellor has the power to place students directly into schools, regardless of their lottery results, but that authority is supposed to be limited to cases when it “would be in the best interests of the student” and “promote the overall interests of the school system.”
Lucas did not conclude that Henderson committed any crimes, but he said she violated guidelines and forwarded his findings to the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability for further action.
Investigators were focused on Henderson and did not address whether the public officials she helped had abused their positions.
The report does not name the parents who benefited from Henderson’s VIP treatment. However, a former city official with knowledge of the school placements provided documents identifying four of them as Young, D.C. Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden, former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and Roberto J. Rodriguez, who served in the White House as an education adviser to President Barack Obama. The former official provided the information on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Fenty and Rodriguez could not be reached to comment; Snowden and Young referred questions to the mayor’s office.
Lucas shared his confidential report with the mayor and D.C. Council members but has declined to make it public, arguing that doing so could jeopardize the privacy of the children involved.
The Post reported last week that Snowden was investigated concerning her son’s placement at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a DCPS school with a waiting list of more than 1,000 students. At a news conference last week, Bowser said that Snowden had not skirted any rules.
She also said that the inspector general’s office had made a “mistake” in its apparent references to Young, who Bowser maintains had enrolled his children in school in 2015 through the normal lottery process without special favors.
According to the inspector general, Snowden’s child was placed at the Capitol Hill school in a grade that had no open seats and despite the fact that he did not appear to have prior Montessori schooling — a requirement for admission. The placement was made in a matter of hours after Henderson sent a note to her chief operating officer inquiring if there was room for the child.
Henderson told the inspector general that she granted a “discretionary” placement to Snowden, who was being paid $196,000 a year as the deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, because she was “paying a lot” to send her son to a private school where he was unhappy. However, the inspector noted that Snowden had won a spot for her son through the lottery for another campus, Watkins Elementary School, but declined to take it.
A confidential source with knowledge of the incident told investigators that “ ‘special’ children, those of city officials, did not have to go through any process to be enrolled at” Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, the report states.
Henderson, herself, acknowledged a different standard for top government employees, saying that “when officials have their children in DCPS schools, it shows trust in the DCPS system, where there is a crisis of confidence,” according to the report.
Henderson also waived the rules for Young, who participated in the 2015 lottery and was apparently offered a seat at a school but did not enroll his children by the May 1 deadline. In mid-July, Henderson “authorized a discretionary transfer” to allow Young access to Murch Elementary School, a public school in Northwest Washington with a waiting list of nearly 800 students.
The inspector general’s report does not say whether Murch was the school where Young’s children were originally matched. If they were, however, the report notes that they would have forfeited their spots when they did not enroll by May 1 and that the school should have moved on to other students on the waiting list.
Last week, Bowser insisted that Young had followed proper lottery procedures. “Rashad Young’s children participated in the lottery,” she told reporters. “They were matched in the lottery. And his children attend a school where they were matched.”
On Wednesday, Bowser said she was not aware at the time that Henderson had given Young special treatment by allowing him to enroll his child months after the deadline passed.
In explaining how she handled Young’s case, Henderson told investigators that she “has given discretion to a lot of government officials” and “if she could help these government officials feel safe about where their children attend school, then she should extend that courtesy.”
Fenty and Rodriguez, Obama’s deputy assistant to the president for education, had children specially placed by Henderson at Mann Elementary School, one of the city’s most sought-after campuses. Mann had a waiting list of 788 students after this year’s lottery.
Fenty, who served a single term as mayor from 2007 to 2011, previously came under fire for his children’s special placement at Lafayette Elementary School by former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2009.
The other people Lucas said received special treatment in 2015 were a principal in the school system, the director of a foundation that works with the school system and one of Henderson’s classmates from graduate school at Georgetown University.
The same year, Henderson rejected requests for special school placements from a D.C. agency director and a deaf woman who wanted her daughter to attend Brent Elementary School, where she said there would be greater opportunities for the child to use sign language with several children of other deaf parents.
Henderson also dismissed out of hand a request from a teacher at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan — the same school where she enrolled the deputy mayor’s son — who wanted her child to attend classes at the same campus where she worked.
“I must say, I was somewhat taken aback by this request and your endorsement of it,” Henderson wrote in an email to the school’s principal, who had followed up on the teacher’s request.
“Is there some reason that I don’t know about that makes you think I should intervene in this particular case, but not in any other case of teachers or parents who don’t get the result they want in the lottery?” Henderson wrote in an email that was quoted in the investigative report. “How would I explain to other teachers or to anyone why [this] child deserves a spot over any other parent who followed the rules that we all agreed on for enrollment in a limited number of seats? What am I missing here?”
Emma Brown and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.