When Tierra Jolly thumbed through her mail on Monday, she was surprised to see campaign literature touting her bid for a seat on the D.C. State Board of Education.
Jolly, a teacher at a private parochial high school in Maryland, didn’t recognize the mailings, which featured her photograph and images of her students. And she said she’d never heard of Education Reform Now, the group that paid for the glossy literature.
“Without my permission or knowledge, people that I didn’t know took photographs and my life story and took photographs of my students and they used them,” said Jolly, who is running in Tuesday’s special election to fill the vacant Ward 8 seat on the school board.
After researching Education Reform Now, Jolly said she was disturbed to learn the group is connected to Democrats for Education Reform, a nonprofit group created by hedge fund managers to promote charter schools, tenure reform and other policies that teachers unions have traditionally fought.
“I was not pleased,” Jolly said. “I support unions. I’m a member of a teachers union. I support individual charter schools that happen to be good public schools, but I’m not an acolyte of the privatization movement.”
Lea Crusey, deputy director of Democrats for Education Reform, did not respond to questions about how much her group is spending on behalf of Jolly’s campaign or how it learned of her candidacy. It is illegal for groups such as Education Reform Now to coordinate with candidates for public office.
“I’ll just offer this: We were intrigued by Tierra’s profile,” Crusey wrote in a e-mail. “The core of our work is cultivating leaders in our party, and we view her as someone with potentially a strong future in leadership.”
As of Friday, Education Reform Now sent two mailings to residents in Ward 8, the city’s southernmost ward, which covers a swath of Southeast Washington and is home to about 54,000 registered voters.
Jolly, who taught in New Orleans as a member of Teach for America, has received financial support from individuals and groups that share policy goals similar to Democrats for Education Reform.
Campaign contribution records show that about 80 percent of the $9,200 Jolly has raised came from outside the District, including $400 from Leadership for Educational Equity, the political arm of Teach for America. The organization grooms Teach for America alumni to run for office around the country and helps them find jobs in education policy.
Jolly also got $200 from Emma Bloomberg, the daughter of former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Emma Bloomberg is chairwoman of both Leadership for Educational Equity and Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has clashed with teachers unions.
Phil Pannell, Jolly’s opponent in the race, said he believes it is odd that the sleepy race for a seat on the D.C. State Board of Education — a body that lost most of its power when education came under mayoral control in 2007 — has attracted attention from national organizations.
“This election in Ward 8 is basically being used by some national educational advocacy groups to promote a particular agenda,” Pannell said. “I’m not saying there’s anything particularly wrong with their agenda. As a matter of fact, I like Teach for America. Their mission is noble. But it’s clear that Ms. Jolly is not running a grass-roots, homegrown campaign in Ward 8.”
Pannell has raised about $5,600 from donors and donated about $3,000 of his own money to his campaign, according to public records. About 90 percent of his donations came from District residents, including $100 from Cora Masters, the ex-wife of former D.C. mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry (D).
Pannell, who is gay, said he declined to accept campaign contributions from the Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports gay candidates, because he didn’t want “to be open to the charge that I was getting help from national groups. This is a local race, and I want it to stay local.”
Jolly said her campaign is focused on Ward 8. “I was born and raised in D.C.,” she said. “I’m a teacher, and one of the reasons I’m running is to include teachers’ voices in our classrooms. I hope that, instead of focusing on things that are frankly outside of my control, I hope we talk about educational equity.”