Student canvassers helped elect charter friendly school board
If you’re a Richmond resident and a registered voter, chances are a Students for Education Reform Action Network (SFER AN) canvasser knocked on your door in the months leading up to the Nov. 8 elections. The group of high school and college students reached more than 30,000 residences in the city campaigning for two school board candidates, Tom Panas and Miriam Stephanie Sequeira.
SFER AN and its parent organization, Students for Education Reform (SFER), present themselves as student-run, grassroots groups that advocate for change and improvement in local public education systems. But leaders in both organizations have charter school connections that appear to influence the groups’ activities, from educating eligible voters to endorsing candidates.
In fact, this election cycle, SFER AN-endorsed candidate Panas won a seat on the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Board of Education, adding a third charter-linked board member to the five-seat board—thereby giving charter-supported members a majority on the board.
SFER and SFER AN executive director Alexis Morin said the student canvassers who campaigned for Panas and Sequeira “[wore] through their shoes…they are incredibly hardworking.”
Morin, who also cofounded SFER, said she founded the organization after becoming interested in disparities in the quality of public education while she was a student at Princeton.
“I knew that the quality of education that my friends and I received was not equal,” Morin said. “It seemed to me that the quality of our schools ha[s] so much bearing on whether a young person can follow their dreams.”
Morin started SFER as a Princeton student group in 2009, to raise awareness about inequality in public education and empower people to make a difference, she said.
In its first year, the group hosted movie screenings and study breaks, and student members visited high-performing charter schools in underserved areas in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.—including schools that were part of the Uncommon Schools and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) public charter school networks.
The organization’s membership grew quickly, and in 2011, Morin and cofounder Catharine Bellinger, a fellow Princeton student, launched SFER as a nonprofit organization. In 2013, the two founded SFER AN, the 501(c)(4) political arm of SFER.
“We definitely recognized that your ability to change a policy is affected by the leaders in charge of the system,” said Morin. The 501(c)(4) organization allowed SFER’s work to expand into the realm of politics and campaigns through SFER AN.
Morin said both organizations adhere to a common set of principles, including setting high standards for students and providing support to meet those standards; supporting quality teachers; creating schools that serve the needs of every student; ensuring justice in schools; and providing access to a variety of school choices for parents and students.
But SFER’s main objective, said Morin, is “to identify and train student leaders to be effective community organizers who can then go and fight for educational justice in their own communities.”
In the months leading up to this year’s election, SFER AN operated five local chapters in four states: California, Colorado, Minnesota and North Carolina.
Many of the students involved in Richmond’s SFER AN chapter and chapters at nearby colleges, including UC Berkeley and UC Davis, grew up in or near Richmond and graduated from WCCUSD traditional public schools and public charter schools.
This fall, SFER “fellows,” as they are called, spent several hours each evening canvassing in Richmond and delivering leaflets for the Panas and Sequeira campaigns. SFER AN considers students’ participation a “fellowship,” and students in the fellowship, which begins over summer, received stipends ranging from $3,760 to $4,680, depending on the hours they worked.
Providing a stipend is necessary, Morin said, because some students must choose between a job and joining SFER AN.