Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) has announced its new president, Shavar Jeffries, an attorney who lost his bid to be mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Jeffries, an African-American, signifies that DFER is trying to make education reform look more like the children it aims to uplift, writes Joy Resmovits of the Los Angeles Times.
“There are no black people who lead these … organizations,” said Derrell Bradford, the director of reform organization NYCAN (New York Campaign for Achievement Now), who is himself black. “I don’t see the world through that lens but it’s not lost on me.”
Jeffries is a fifth-generation Newarker who was raised by his grandmother, a public school teacher, following the murder of his mother. He attended public school in a low-income neighborhood, but later received a scholarship to a private preparatory school. Jeffries was accepted at Duke University and then Columbia Law School, underlining the organization’s mantra that education can be “an escape route from extraordinarily difficult life circumstances.”
He is a former president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and a founding member of TEAM schools in New Jersey, a chain of charter schools aligned with the KIPP foundation.
Until recently, Joe Williams, a former New York Daily News reporter, led DFER. Williams has joined the Walton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that sponsors a host of education-related initiatives including charter school chains.
It was prior to the 2008 presidential election that DFER entered the education scene as an influential counter to teachers unions. That year the group received little publicity, but now is considered the creator of a shift in how the party approaches education. The main idea is to take policymaking away from teachers unions and give that process to “education reform.” To DFER, that means a more technocratic way of thinking concerning schools.
Many mayors from cities across the country have spoken out in support of these ideas and most Americans understand the reform philosophy. Much of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s run for office was based on calling out former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was himself an education reform philanthropist, over his education agenda.
Along the way, criticism has surrounded the reform movement. Many did not like the idea that wealthy white reformers were attempting to impose what they thought was best for America’s struggling schools that often had students who were black and Latino.
“Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered,” Cory Booker, who was then the mayor of Newark, said, according to Dana Goldstein’s recounting in the American Prospect. “I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters.”
But Martha Infante, a teacher in a Los Angeles middle school and a member of the education group Educolor, said she is not sure she understands what DFER means by changing their leaders to better reflect the students they serve.
“You may have a person of color in charge of these organizations, but I don’t know how far removed they are from the action,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything to me. People removed from schools come in many different colors.”
Democrats for Education Reform defines their vision as making the Democratic Party a champion of high quality public education. DFER continues by stating that one of the ways the broken public school system can be reformed is by “opening up the traditional top-down monopoly of most school systems and empowering all parents to access great schools for their children.”