Originally published in The Intercept on November 30, 2018.
HAKEEM JEFFRIES’S VICTORY in the race for Democratic House caucus chair on Wednesday was a loss for progressive groups that rallied against him, but it was a victory for one national group in particular: Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER — a political action committee that funds candidates supportive of charter schools and is critical of teachers unions. DFER was founded in 2005 by a number of Wall Street leaders, with the mission, as co-founder Whitney Tilson explained it, “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.”
While DFER really began to flex its financial muscles in 2008 — when it raised about $2 million to help elect pro-charter candidates — its earlier work focused primarily on New York. There, the group helped elect Hakeem Jeffries to the New York State Assembly in 2006. (He served in the state Legislature from 2007 to 2012.) In 2007, DFER also helped lobby New York legislators to lift the state’s charter school cap, increasing it from 150 schools to 250. In 2010, Jeffries co-sponsored legislation to raise the state’s charter cap even further, to 460 — where it stands today.
Over the years, Jeffries has become one of DFER’s top candidates. In 2012, when Jeffries announced that he would run for Congress, the group rallied behind him, elevating him to its so-called DFER Hot List. No other Democrat received more in direct DFER contributions that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Though Jeffries has long been close to DFER, he’s rejected money from other school reform advocacy groups. In 2012, he turned down funds from a new group called StudentsFirstNY which offered him a six-figure contribution in the form of an independent expenditure. “The Jeffries campaign does not believe that independent expenditures have a place in this race,” his campaign spokesperson said at the time. “We did not seek it, do not want it, and will win without it. Those involved with the proposed independent expenditure should refrain from involvement in this race and respect the candidate’s strong belief that unregulated money has no place in the political discourse.”
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Jeffries did not respond to questions on Jeffries’s relationship with DFER, his plans for education reform advocacy as caucus chair, and his current views on independent expenditures.
Jeffries “embodies the Obama education agenda we support: greater investments in public education; strong standards to ensure our children are ready for the global economy; and diverse, high quality public school options for our parents to choose from,” DFER president Shavar Jeffries told The Intercept. (The two Jeffries are not confirmed blood relatives, but identify as cousins.)
“Alongside the election of reform-supporting governors and state and local officials around the county,” Shavar Jeffries continued, “his ascendancy into greater leadership in the House signals that the Obama reform agenda remains strong.”
While in Congress, Jeffries has stayed close to the charter movement. He’s spoken at fundraisers for Success Academy, the prominent New York City charter network, and in 2016 was the keynote speaker for a large pro-charter rally, organized to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to expand charters in New York City.
De Blasio has been critical of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. For a while, there were rumblings that Jeffries could mount a charter school-backed challenge to de Blasio’s 2017 re-election, something he did not immediately rule out at the time. “My inclination remains to remain in Washington. … However all options are on the table and I am going to take a hard look at where I can make a difference in the next few years,” he told Politico in 2016. (Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy, also considered a pro-charter challenge to de Blasio for mayor, but decided to remain on her perch to influence education reform politics nationally.)
Jeffries has been called the “Barack Obama of Brooklyn,” in part for his education policy stances, as Obama was also an early DFER-backed candidate. DFER is credited with derailing Linda Darling-Hammond’s bid for education secretary in the Obama administration. Darling-Hammond is a progressive education policy expert who has positive relationships with teachers unions. As education journalist Dana Goldstein reported in 2009:
In recent months, DFER has had a number of high-profile successes, chief among them a highly coordinated media campaign to call into question the work of Obama education adviser Linda Darling-Hammond, once considered a top contender for the job of education secretary. During the same week in early December, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe published editorials or op-eds based on DFER’s anti-Darling-Hammond talking points, which focused on the Stanford professor’s criticisms of Teach for America and other alternative-certification programs for teachers. Less than two weeks later, Obama appointed DFER’s choice to the Education Department post, Chicago schools CEO [Arne] Duncan.
DFER, and education reform generally, has traditionally been linked to affluent white collar industries like tech and — especially in New York — finance. For example, when Moskowitz, a DFER supporter, published a memoir in 2017, she urged her readers to approach income inequality “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.” She scolded de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.” The financial sector has contributed substantially to Jeffries’s political campaigns.
POLITICS WITHIN BOTH the Democratic Party and the national electorate, however, have changed since 2009, and DFER’s strategies of opposing teachers unions and raising money from the super wealthy have grown more controversial. As progressives have embraced a sharper critique of Wall Street and economic inequality, and as organized labor continues to battle escalating attacks from right-wing interest groups and a hostile judicial system, an anti-union message from Wall Street Democrats has grown considerably less popular.
It was clear, even before Trump won the presidency in 2016, that Democratic elected officials were facing greater pressure to balance their support for charters, a favored cause of many of their donors, with growing public skepticism of the schools. In 2016, candidates like Hillary Clinton and elected officials like Jeffries himself maintained their vocal support for charters but began articulating their opposition to for-profit charter schools, a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. (Kevin Chavous, a co-founder of DFER and a former board chair for the organization, now serves as president of academics, policy and schools for K12 Inc., a national for-profit charter school company.) Democrats also explicitly spelled out opposition to for-profit charters for the first time in their 2016 party platform.
Education reform Democrats suffered a significant loss in 2016, when a high-profile and expensive effort to lift the state’s charter school cap, led by DFER’s Massachusetts chapter, failed 62 percent to 38 percent, with cities all over the state, including Boston, voting in opposition. (The now-defunct pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools, was later finedfor illegally funneling nearly $2.5 million from out of state into the charter expansion effort.)
Then, in 2017, with Trump in office and billionaire Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the Democratic-leaning education reform movement was put further on the defensive, forced to explain why its vision for school choice should not be confused with that of the Trump administration, and why it should shoulder no blame for the escalating attacks on public education. It didn’t help having people like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani proclaiming, “President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement.”
Later that year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support remained steady over the five years, at 62 percent.
DFER has at times struggled to find its footing in this changing political landscape. Shavar Jeffries told the education news website Chalkbeat in 2017 that while his group has been fighting DeVos’s policies and for-profit charter schools, they also still spend much of their time fighting Democrats. “When we fight the union and old-guard Democrats, which is honestly what we spend most of our time doing, we don’t fight them because they’re Democrats; we fight them because we think they’re wrong on what’s right for kids.” In addition to charter-friendly policies, their website lists additional advocacy focus areas, including school funding, test-based accountability, and teacher prep programs.
To maintain its credibility within the party, DFER often points to Obama, who remains very popular among liberals. “We’re very clear about the legacy in which we operate,” Shavar Jeffries told Buzzfeed earlier this year. “We operate within the legacy of Barack Obama. His agenda is our agenda, and it’s an agenda that hundreds of Democrats across the country support.”
GETTING HAKEEM JEFFRIES, a pro-charter DFER-affiliated politician, into a top Democratic leadership position is no doubt good news for the organization, which suffered several blows in the 2018 midterm elections. (It spent at least $4 million in the latest cycle.)
Earlier this month, the organization’s endorsed candidate for California state superintendent of public instruction, Marshall Tuck, lost to Tony Thurmond, who was backed by the state Democratic party and teachers unions. DFER had also endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa in an unsuccessful bid to become California’s next governor. The charter movement spent $23 million in support of Villaraigosa, the largest independent expenditure for a gubernatorial primary in California’s history, but his opponent Gavin Newsom won the Democratic primary and general election easily.
In New York, a slew of progressive Democrats won their state Senate races, dramatically upending the composition of the state assembly and unseating the caucus of moderate Democrats who backed charter schools and often voted with Republicans. The new crop of Democrats is expected to fight efforts to lift New York’s charter school cap and to push for more charter school regulations.
In Washington, D.C., DFER’s involvement in the local school board election also raised eyebrows this year. One parent blogger determined that in 2018, DFER DC political action and independent expenditure committees raised over $520,000 — four times as much in contributions as the rest of the city’s independent expenditure committees combined. One DFER DC-endorsed candidate, Jason Andrean, raised the most money out of all individuals vying for a State Board of Education seat, though he ended up losing his race to a candidate who is vocally critical of DFER candidate. In the lead-up to election, DFER itself became a campaign issue, with candidates frequently challenged on their support for or opposition to the organization.
And in Colorado, though the state’s Democratic leadership has been broadly supportive of education reform policies and Gov.-elect Jared Polis has founded charter schools himself, Democratic voters have been voicing growing distrust of DFER. Last spring, delegates at the Colorado Democratic State Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a platform amendment calling DFER to remove the word “Democrats” from its name.
DFER held its 5th annual “Camp Philos” conference, a national gathering for education reform advocates, this week. At the conference, taking place in Boulder, Colorado, leaders grappled with how to chart their political path heading into 2020.
On Wednesday morning, before votes were cast in the caucus chair race, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., introduced Jeffries, He was, Vargas told the assembled Democrats, “the next Obama.”