Monday, August 1, 2016

DFER Scrambles for Leverage

Camp Philos was not so swank this year.

In previous years, the Very Deeply Thoughty reformster retreat has taken place at luxurious retreat locations. But this year the Festival of Reforminess was held in Philadelphia in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention.

That makes a certain amount of sense because Camp Philos is a project of the Democrats for Education Reform, and DFER is a project of hedge fund guys like Whitney Tilson. DFER does not adhere to some traditional Democratic positions; they have, for instance, a deep disdain for the teachers unions. And when it comes to education reform policies like charter schools, DFER is indistinguishable from the ed reform wing of the GOP.

That's not entirely a surprise. Here's what Tilson once had to say about how he decided to put the D in DFER:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

DFER's been having a bad couple of weeks. The first draft of the democratic platform suited them just fine, but then the final draft included some new language, language that in particular tightened the noose on charter schools. From unconditional support of charters, the platform committee moved to requirements such as saying that charters "should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools" and must take their fair share of students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

The tweaks were small but significant, and DFER and other charter supporters howled like stuck pigs. For the past few weeks, readers must constantly be reminded with frequent references to DFER chief Shavar Jeffries' assertion that the platform was "hijacked" and an "unfortunate departure from President Obama's historic education legacy." Other DFERsters like Peter Cook were not just alarmed that the the platform was rolling back (however slightly) charter support, but that the Democratic Party was listening to the teachers unions. Imagine that!

There's reason to question just how much DFER and their brethren are over-reacting. The DNC also held up Cory Booker as an exemplar of Democratic swellness, and on education, Booker is exactly the kind of politician that DFER can love, all in for charters and dismissive of teachers and their unions. The Clinton camp dispatched senior policy advisor Ann O'Leary to Camp Philadelphilos to reassure DFER that Clinton had not abandoned them. She also floated the popular recycled talking point that No Child Left Behind was kind of awesome and totally helped accountability by finding all the schools that were having trouble, which is as big a slab of unvarnished baloney as you'll find anywhere in reformerdom. Most notably, Clinton herself has been walking a line designed to avoid upsetting either teachers or charteristas, and the Democrat campaign has gone back to focusing strictly on pre-K and college, completely dodging that K-12 education issues that are everyone's Big Concern.

And DFER has held onto one of their most valuable and mysterious assets-- the general assumption that DFER deserves a Seat at the Table. From Molly Knefel's coverage of Camp Phildephilos:

Early in the day, panel moderator Jonathan Alter asked how Clinton differs from Obama on education policy. Ben LaBolt, former National Press Secretary for Obama for America, replied: "The Clinton campaign has said they're going to have a seat at the table for everyone in the party who works in education. That means reformers will have a seat at the table, that means the unions will have a seat at the table." The important thing, he quipped, is that "the unions don't get all the seats at the table -- just one of the seats."

This remains one of the most bizarre features of the Age of Reform. Lots of folks have just walked in off the street and demanded a Seat at the Education Table. There's never been anything quite like it. No civilians stomp into a McDonalds corporate meeting and says, "Okay, I've got some ideas about menu that you must listen to." No average citizen walks into a hospital board meeting and says, "Here's the rules you need to follow for providing patient care." No batch of teachers crashes a hedge fund business meeting and says, "Okay, here's how you must conduct your investment strategy."

But education is plagued by a wide assortment of people who have a Seat at the Education Table because they have declared that they do. And now DFER is having a cow because educators want a Seat at the Education Table, as if reformsters were not only entitled to all the seats but also owned the table.

DFER is tugging hard on its Democratic Party leash without tugging so hard that they break the rope entirely. Here's a warm fuzzy Shavar Jeffries quoted at Hechinger Report trying to concern-troll the issue:

“We bring criticism of the platform as a family member questions the misconduct of a fellow family member,” responds Shavar Jeffries, president of DFER. “We bring criticism to push the party to be true to the values it has embodied historically. Others may raise questions to undermine the forward progress of the party; we bring criticism to accelerate it.”

We're just attacking the party for its own good. But Andre Perry challenges DFER to earn its D, noticing what many of us have been noticing for the past few years:

When Democrats changed the platform, it was a political victory for those who repudiated the brand of reform that DFER promotes. The change was a result of real political work, and they are changes designed to get Hillary Clinton elected. Isn’t that the goal of a platform?

Check the last mid-term elections. Education reform was a liability for Democrats. But Republicans could lump vouchers and charters in a “choice” package in which Dems, because of their deep embrace of the term, have been unable to differentiate themselves from their Republican colleagues. In addition, Republican governors have been able to flip-flop on Common Core with little consequence from Democrats primarily because of the manner in which teachers and unions have been attacked.

And Perry asks the $60 million question:

But when “Democrats” is in the name, there’s a different expectation. The name assumes a willingness to work within the political process. If DFER can’t differentiate itself from other like-minded groups then it should simply be For Education Reform.

DFER has been able to pass itself off as Democratic all this time because so many Democrats have gone the neo-liberal route, embracing conservative, business-friendly, teacher-hostile, public school destructive policies. Any shift in party policy will force outfits like DFER to signal whether they are more about the D or the R.


  1. Terrific analysis--especially the phony "we're just attacking the party to save it" rationale. I have been following this story with great interest (and also wrote about it--link below).

    Reading your piece, I was struck by Ben LaBolt's remark about how the important thing is that unions get just one seat at the table. This really is not only about making money from the great untapped education "marketplace"--quotes intentional--but it's also deeply classist.

    In his landmark book, "SchoolTeacher," Dan Lortie notes that teaching is often pursued by first-generation college graduates, as a stepping stone to the middle class. If you think of teaching as a low-level career, most appropriate for those with social aspirations (or your Ivy League nephew who needs two years' experience before going to work for Goldman Sachs), then you would interpret that "place at the table" as a kind of generous gift given by real decision-makers.

  2. This is my take on the platform war:

  3. The only family relationship Shavar Jeffries could possibly claim to a real educator would be something like former step-brother-in-law.

  4. I'm actually surprised that teachers and teachers unions don't attack DFER-Reformsty types for being arrogant amateurs who know nothing about teaching. I mean I've heard it occasionally, but even then it's not usually forceful. There are thousands of reasons to oppose this whole anti-public ed agenda, but one thing that really bothers a lot of people (especially working class people) is someone telling them how to do their job despite knowing nothing about it. Everybody has had that experience, and we all yearn to tell the self-proclaimed expert to shut their mouths and go back to whatever it is they actually do.