Amidst the bad news of abusive state testing and stagnant student achievement, a ray of sunshine broke through the clouds yesterday when the news broke that members of the Democratic party in Colorado voted by a huge margin to dissociate themselves from Democrats for Education Reform and demand they take the word "Democrats" off their name.
After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform.
Even though the Los Angeles County Democratic Party demanded DFER "remove all reference to the Democratic Party...from your name" in 2012 and the California Democratic party passed a similar resolution denouncing the organization the next year, this is a far more momentous event since Colorado for many years has been a stronghold of corporate education reform. Senator Michael Bennet, Rep. Jared Polis and State Senator Michael Johnson are all true-believers, adhering to the tenets of charter school expansion, school closings and high-stakes testing with near-religious obeisance, and until recently, the Denver school board has been made up of members who unanimously supported these policies and were elected with the help of DFER "dark money."
In a speech quoted by Chalkbeat, Vanessa Quintana, a political activist and a fromer student at Manual High School, described her experiences as a victim of school reform. The school was restructured and broken up into three separate high schools with funding and a push from the Gates Foundation, and then closed by Michael Bennet when he was Denver superintendent:
“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”
Since its founding in 2005 by NYC hedgefunder Whitney Tilson, DFER has been very influential. Led by former Daily News reporter Joe Williams, the organization was an early supporter of Barack Obama when he was running for Senator in Illinois, and directed Wall Street money to candidate Andrew Cuomo when he was a candidate for Governor of New York. The organization had a strong hand in developing the pro-privatization, market-base agenda of both men, as well as the positions of far too many other Democratic officials across the country. Here is the story of the marriage of convenience between DFER and Cuomo, as recounted in the NY Times:
When Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo wanted to meet certain members of the hedge fund crowd, seeking donors for his all-but-certain run for governor, what he heard was this: Talk to Joe.
That would be Joe Williams, executive director of a political action committee that advances what has become a favorite cause of many of the wealthy founders of New York hedge funds: charter schools.... Hedge fund executives are thus emerging as perhaps the first significant political counterweight to the powerful teachers unions, which strongly oppose expanding charter schools in their current form.
Perhaps the vote in Colorado this weekend results from the fact that the battle lines are clearer in the age of pro-privatization Trump and Betsy DeVos. Or perhaps the corrosive damage done to our public education system by charter expansion, high -stakes testing and school closures has become even clearer with the passage of time. Joe Williams himself left DFER in 2015, and now works for the Walton Family Foundation, funded by the conservative billionaire heirs to the Walmart fortune. The NAACP passed a well-publicized resolution in 2016 and again in 2017, calling for a moratorium on charter expansion. Popular support for charters has fallen precipitously in the polls.
Yet Andrew Cuomo, running for a third term as Governor, still gets big contributions from the the charter lobby ($30,000 from Coalition for Public Charter Schools PAC and $50,000 from the Walton family in 2018 alone ) and predictably retains his political preference for charter schools. Daniel Loeb, head of the board of Success Academy charters, and his wife have donated more than $170,000 to Cuomo in recent years, according to the NY Times.
In any event, let's remember how Whitney Tilson explained the founding of DFER in a film called "A Right Denied" (reported previously on this blog):
“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…”
Lets hope that the Colorado vote is a turning point, and that it is no longer politically or ethically acceptable for progressive Democrats to act like Republicans when it comes to education policy.