- Still relatively new on the scene, DFER benefited enormously from its long-shot early endorsement of Barack Obama and the unprecedented national focus on Obama’s $5 billion Race to the Top grant program.
- Conflicts with teachers unions and other traditional education stakeholders steadily heated up over the years, thanks in part to DFER’s dogged focus on charter school expansion (and charter school funders), challenges to sitting incumbents, and reform implementation challenges.
- DFER became increasingly exposed when unions and others shifted their support for Common Core and began attacking the organization as part of a “corporate reform” movement led by white elites. Meanwhile, DFER was slow to broaden its agenda to include immigration, school discipline, and other social justice issues.
Last summer, the cluster of interconnected organizations known collectively as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) celebrated its eighth official anniversary and announced that longtime leader Joe Williams would be stepping down as executive director by the end of the year.
At the time, DFER’s full-time national staff numbered about 20 and spent about $12 million a year, according to Williams. All six founding board members were still on board—a remarkable run of stability. With 13 active state chapters in addition to a federal lobbying and policy shop, the organization claimed to have helped 17 states reform teacher evaluation, 11 states include student achievement in teacher evaluation and tenure decisions, and 13 states expand charter school provisions.
“I feel good about what we did,” said Williams a few months after his departure, sounding relaxed. Typically self-deprecating, Williams explained the need for new leadership in simple terms: “I just ran out of tricks.”
During the previous eight years, especially from 2008 to 2012, DFER received enormous attention—both admiring and critical—and had been extremely active. Steven Brill captured much of its early success in his 2010 book Class Warfare, a generally favorable account of education reform issues and players in the 2008 election and first two years of the Obama administration. That same year, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System told some of the same story from a more critical perspective.
For some education reformers, DFER’s intramural, Democrats-only focus had been a breath of fresh air. Its explicitly political focus—as opposed to policy or practice—was a welcome change.
Some believed that the organization’s influence during that period had been substantial: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side, even with the turn back [away from some of DFER’s ideas] now,” said Drew University’s Patrick McGuinn in an early 2016 interview. DFER is “not the only reason but [it] has played a big role,” according to McGuinn, who penned a 2012 look at DFER’s policy leadership.
Others believed that DFER had done little or had even been a destructive force within the Democratic Party. “I met the folks at DFER through John Petri at Gotham Capital,” recalled Daniel Leeds, a DC businessman and philanthropist who had helped found the League of Education Voters and who regularly convened a broad group of education funders. “I didn’t see how [their approach] was going to drive education attainment forward.”
Taking the middle view were those who, while generally supportive of DFER’s aims, wondered why it hadn’t done more with the amazing luck and momentum that it had enjoyed. DFER “didn’t create a broad movement among Democratic lawmakers around revamping how schools work,” said former Michigan lawmaker Tim Melton, who moved over to work for StudentsFirst, a school reform advocacy group that recently merged with 50CAN.
After Williams’ departure, the question was whether DFER was “out of tricks,” too. Could DFER—founded to create a “safe place” for pro-charter, reform-oriented Democratic politicians to make much-needed changes to the education system—find ways to deepen and expand its successes without such a close ally in the White House as it had enjoyed during the Obama administration? Could DFER find new ways to influence the political process at the state and local levels, as it had done for a time federally?
The main question of this case study is to consider DFER’s influence and impact from 2008 to 2016. Some other key questions include:
- How did DFER’s influence rise or fall during that time—and why?
- What strategies and tactics did DFER use to influence the political process, and which ones worked better than others?
- Did DFER—described in one AFT document as “an education privatization group started by hedge fund managers”—help to destabilize or enlarge the Democratic Party?
What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfil his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.
But even as DFER and its allies enjoyed incredible successes, its reputation for influence exceeded its real-world abilities, and the cracks in the model were already forming. The 2010 rise of the Tea Party, the push to implement both new standards and teacher evaluations at roughly the same time, and the emergence of a powerful new social justice movement all helped put DFER and its school reform allies in direct conflict with the teachers unions and a growing number of Democrats who identified as progressive or liberal.
The backlash against “corporate reform” nationally and in places like Newark would surprise DFER and its allies with its power and suddenness. They found their ideas—such as common standards for all children—used as a proxy to fight back against them.
By the time forces aligned to roll back the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the unions and conservatives were teamed up on their own. DFER and its allies, used to being at the center of everything, were left somewhat to the side.
Even under new leadership, it’s hard to predict what happens to DFER in a post-Obama environment. DFER and its allies will need to rebrand themselves to make clear that they are trying to change attitudes and address broader issues rather than merely looking to pass another teacher evaluation bill. The next White House occupant isn’t likely to be a close ally. The action is going to be in the states. “They’ve never really existed without Obama,” said one close observer who didn’t want to be named. “That’s a question looming out there for them.”