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DFER Says Its Causes are 'Progressive,' Is Pouring $4 Million Into State Races

Democrats for Education Reform, a national group that advocates for charter schools and stringent school accountability among other policies, has launched a multifaceted campaign defining its priorities as part of the national progressive movement that's animated Democratic voters across the country.  

The organization, known as DFER, on Monday issued a new poll and YouTube videos, and announced $4 million in campaign donations to Democratic candidates in states who support providing parents with more options on where to send their children, holding underperforming teachers accountable, and spending more equitably between schools. 

"Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color," said DFER President Shavar Jeffries in a statement. "That's why this election cycle DFER is going to the mat to help elect ed progressive leaders who will fight for more money and bold, new ideas that can improve schools for our children." 

National education advocacy groups have had an especially difficult time in the last two years navigating a rapidly shifting political landscape. The Every Student Succeeds Act moved big accountability and school improvement decisions from the federal government to statehouses, where national organizations have few lobbyists and mobilized parent groups. Many of those legislatures wanted to put an end to years of political strife over testing and teacher evaluations and in their ESSA plans either punted decisions back to local school boards or conceded to (much more organized) teachers' and school administrators' demands.  

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has used her bully pulpit to advocate for charter schools and vouchers, which has upset parents and teachers in financially starved school districts, something Democratic candidates looking to take back statehouses have sought to exploit in recent months.  

At a raucous statewide convention in April, members of Colorado's Democratic Party booed the state's DFER president Jennifer Walmer as she spoke in favor of charter schools. The convention then approved an amendment to the party's state platform that says, in part, "We oppose making Colorado's public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party's name Democrat in their name."

Nevertheless, to the Colorado's teacher union's dismay, U.S. House member Jared Polis, who has pushed for charter schools and vouchers in the past, won the Democratic nomination for governor in this year's Colorado contest.

Riding 'A Blue Wave'?

In its press release issued this week, DFER said that Democratic black and Latino parents, according to recent polls, want more options on where to send their children and want more accountability of underperforming schools and teachers. The poll, which was conducted by Benson Strategy Group and 270 Strategies for DFER included 2,000 presidential voters. 

"A Blue Wave is coming, and education reform that includes both more money and new ideas to improve our schools must be part of the progressive agenda so that all American children receive the high-quality public education they deserve," said Jeffries. 

The organization's $4 million in campaign money will be be spent to support candidates including Marshall Tuck, a Democrat running for state superintendent in California who supports an expansion of charter schools in that state, as well as Polis in Colorado, Ned Lamont who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Connecticut, and New York incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

To set that amount in context, the National Education Association invested close to $22 million in 2016 state elections. Fresh off a wave of somewhat successful statewide strikes for better pay led by their members,  the NEA has pledged to donate even more money in this year's state elections and to deploy teachers to campaign for the union's preferred candidates. (The NEA also faces political and financial challenges of their own). 

And many Democratic candidates in this year's election have turned against school choice and pushed for more local control. For example, many of the dozens of Democratic teachers running for state office  this year said to Education Week they are running partly to get rid of teacher evaluations tied to test scores, which they say has led to teacher shortages across the state. 

Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for New Mexico's governor have pledged  to get rid of that state's infamous teacher evaluation tied to test scores if elected. And the Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Arizona have pledged to advocate for public school and place a moratorium on the expansion of vouchers and charter schools. 

"Since the '90s our public education system has been under attack by forces that want to privatize and destroy it," State Sen. Steve Farley, one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said on his website. "[Arizona has] been on the forefront of charter schools and private school vouchers, things to try and take money away from our public education system. After the Great Recession hit we saw dramatic cuts to our public school budgets. We're at an absolute crisis point now."


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