Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

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