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You be the Judge: Are the @DFER_News Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

You be the judge. This post will discuss the highlights— or perhaps lowlights— of the Democrats For Education Reform (DFERs), a very powerful Wall Street funded organization who some say are seeking to profit from public education. The Seattle Education blog argued,

Democrats for Education Reform is a political action committee supported largely by hedge fund managers favoring charter schools, merit-pay tied to test scores, high-stakes testing, school choice (including vouchers and tuition tax credits in some cases), mayoral control, and alternative teacher preparation programs.

Jeff Bryant reported on the framing that the DFERs prefer,

In an interview featured on the website of a conservative D.C.-based think tank, [Marc Porter Magee] has stated his intentions of “breaking up the old ways of thinking in the Democratic Party … by asking: How could we solve conservative problems with liberal means, and liberal problems with conservative means?”

On their website the DFERs tell us that,

  • We support policies which stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools and which simultaneously close down failing schools
  • We support mechanisms that allow parents to select excellent schools for their children, and where education dollars follow each child to their school.
  • We support governance structures which hold leaders responsible, while giving them the tools to effectuate change. We believe in empowering mayors to lead urban school districts, so that they can be held accountable by the electorate.
  • We support policies that allow school principals and their school communities to select their teams of educators, holding them accountable for student performance but allowing them flexibility to exercise sound, professional judgment.
  • We support clearly-articulated national standards and expectations for core subject areas, while allowing states and local districts to determine how best to make sure that all students are reaching those standards.

Fairly innocuous— none of that sounds controversial on its face.  But are they actually wolves in sheep’s clothing?

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So who are the DFERs? You be the judge.

In this post I will run through a recent timeline of events and coverage of the DFERs.

2007: The Daily Kos reported,

The loudest voices were those of a new organization calling themselves Democrats for Education reform (DFER), led by young extremely wealthy hedge fund operators from New York City. In the May 31, 2007 issue of New York Sun there was a report about one of the first victories of DFER: “A money manager recently sent an e-mail to some partners, congratulating them on an investment of $1 million that yielded an estimated $400 million. The reasoning was that $1 million spent on trying to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in New York State yielded a change in the law that will bring $400 million a year in funding to new charter schools. The money managers who were among the main investors in this law — three Harvard MBAs and a Wharton graduate named Whitney Tilson, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, Charles Ledley, and John Petry — are moving education-oriented volunteerism beyond championing a single school.  “They want to shift the political debate by getting the Democratic Party to back innovations such as merit pay for teachers, a longer school day, and charter schools. …  The group — actually two separate political action committees — has raised money for senators Obama, Clinton, and Lieberman; Governor Spitzer; Rep. George Miller; state senators Malcolm Smith and Antoine Thompson; assemblymen Sam Hoyt, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jonathan Bing, and City Council Member Vito Lopez. They count the charter cap lift, signed by Mr. Spitzer in April, as their first major victory.

2008:We have the DFERs to thank for Arne Duncan? As report by Mike Simpson at Big Education Ape:

Yet, by November Alexander Russo of the Huffington Post was reporting “The possibility of Darling-Hammond being named Secretary has emerged as an especially worrisome possibility among a small but vocal group of younger, reform-minded advocates who supported Obama because he seemed reform-minded on education issues like charter schools, performance pay, and accountability. These reformists seem to perceive Darling-Hammond as a touchy-feely anti-accountability figure who will destroy any chances that Obama will follow through on any of these initiatives.

2010: The UFT argued

…(DFERs are) like other public school bashers, except they call themselves Democrats. Democrats for Education Reform claims that it “leads efforts to frame the fight that is playing out within the Democratic Party on education issues.” It tries to accomplish that by pushing aside educators as spokespeople or even as informed practitioners. The organization advocates for nonunion charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations, curbs on tenure and removing educators from almost any role in shaping curriculum or determining working conditions.

In just three years, DFER directed more than $17 million into political and grassroots advocacy for its version of education reform and for what Joe Williams, the group’s former executive director and Daily News education reporter, credits as “creating momentum which has the potential to dominate education policymaking for years to come.

Also in 2010, Andrew J. Rotherham, DFER founder, proffered that Congressman Boehner would be “good” for education in his Time Magazine article Will John Boehner Be Good for Education? Prophet points deducted.

2011: The Nation argued that DFER was increasingly anti-educator and more focused on privatizing education: “…DFER’s endgame has little to do with learning and everything to do with marginalizing public-sector unionized workers and bringing down the cost of taxes for social programs and… creating new business and investment opportunities in areas that are still publicly run…”

2012: The DFERs were starting to pour money into school board races. Diane Ravitch’s comments ran in the Answer Sheet:

…This account (of corporate reformers) would not be complete if I didn’t mention the Wall Street hedge-fund managers who are active in school “reform.” Their organization is called Democrats for Education Reform, and it is the go-to place for candidates who hope to tap into Wall Street campaign funds. DFER spends freely in state and local races to elect candidates who support charter schools and evaluation of teachers by student test scores (although, ironically, many charters are exempt from state requirements to evaluate teachers by student test scores). A recent article lists the hedge-fund managers who sit on charter boards in New York City, and it is indeed astonishing that so many powerful and very rich men have decided that they know how to fix public education. This is the background that one needs to understand the recent school board race in Denver and the Louisiana state board election. What does all this outpouring of interest by the wealthiest people in the United States mean? …

After watching several years of DFERs pushing various privatization and profit schemes in the name of education reform and Civil Rights, the real Democrats had apparently had enough. The Los Angeles County Democratic Party issued a cease and desist Letter to DFER over using the word “Democrats”

Tell your friends in the 46th AD that “Democrats for Education Reform” does not speak for the Democratic Party. DPSFV stands with LACDP in demanding that DFER cease and desist using the Democratic name to confuse voters in California elections.

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2013: The DFERs pumped $1.6 million into Students for Education Reform (SFER) for college campuses.

An article by George Joseph in The Nation entitled Astroturf Activism: Who is Behind Students for Education Reform? found:

SFER, a student network that has exploded on more than 100 college campuses across the country since it was started by two students at Princeton in 2009, is an “education reform” front for a lobbying firm, exploiting college idealism for corporate profit. The group’s website declares: “We believe student voices matter. For too long, policymakers have not heard the voice of the stakeholders affected by education policy: students themselves.” But the pitch should replace stakeholders with stockholders, because the dollars behind the “grassroots” movement say more than the students themselves.

SFER has received $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, whose PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), shelled out $1 million to attack the Chicago Teachers Union. DFER worked with the Koch brothers and ALEC to push Proposition 32, which if passed, would have blocked labor unions from using automatic payroll deductions for political purposes. Though SFER claims neutral territory, its motives are laid bare by its rallying around the funding of charter schools, the issue of limiting tenure, and its strict focus on testing. The testing corporations and charter school CEOs might agree with hedge funder and DFER founder Whitney Tilson’s explanation for his interest in education: “Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”

I gave a talk on the problems with testing and accountability to the UT-Austin chapters of SFER in 2013. At the time, I had no idea what the background of the organization was.

2014:  The motives of the DFERs had become readily apparent and elements within the Democratic Party began to take notice of the organization’s backers and their profit desires. The Washington Post reported that

There has been growing pushback against corporate reform from elements in the Democratic Party. Donna Brazile, a longtime strategist, this month announced that she will  co-chair a newly formed organization called Democrats for Public Education and she told delegates at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention that “the very premise of market-driven education reform” is wrong. The new organization is apparently a counter to the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which has for years supported Obama’s reform agenda and supported the spread of public charter schools…

2015: Diane Ravitch put former state Sen. Gloria Romero and “parent trigger” bill sponsor on blast due to her role asthe director of California DFER. She wrote about Romero’s Parent Trigger (See also the post The Teat: Where does parent trigger movement get their $?)

There is something fundamentally undemocratic about letting this year’s (or last year’s) parents to privatize a community institution, built and paid for by the entire community.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.00.12 AM

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Matthew 7:15

So from this brief compendium/timeline… who do you think the DFERs are?

Are they as Muncie Voice’s Todd Smekens noted,

About setting up a new corporate structure to extract taxpayer dollars in our communities and sending the proceeds to Wall Street’s hedge fund managers who are  salivating over the potential of steady streams of income tied to each student aka “commodity to be traded”.

or are they reformers that,

Believe that reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins, but rather through bold and revolutionary leadership.

and,

Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.

You be the Judge. Please vote below.

Please Facebook Like, Tweet, etc below and/or reblog to share this discussion with others.

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (690 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

2 Comments on You be the Judge: Are the @DFER_News Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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