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The 74 Interview: Democrats for Education Reform’s Shavar Jeffries on the Blue Wave, the Politics of the Possible & Grand Bargains

By Beth Hawkins | January 21, 2019

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See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

The common wisdom in the wake of Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education was that education reform was dead in the political water. The term “school choice,” proponents feared, had acquired an ideological taint fatal to progressive Democrats.

The common wisdom in the wake of the midterms, in which Democrats stampeded left and won big, is that the blue wave washed away the last hope of a continued bipartisan education coalition.

Shavar Jeffries has no use for the common wisdom. President of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee that supports candidates and elected officials who favor charter schools, increased education funding, and a host of other policies, Jeffries is the guy whose job it is to prove prevailing sentiment shortsighted.

Name a local, state, or federal electoral district where K-12 education policy has topped the agenda, and chances are Jeffries can tell you what the roadmap is for a Democrat who wants to both push on the educational status quo and win re-election. The group is active in eight states.

Jeffries’s belief that there’s always a path forward is reflected in his personal background growing up in Newark. After he lost his mother to violence, Jeffries was raised by his grandmother, a public school teacher. His trajectory was changed suddenly and dramatically when he won a scholarship to a private prep school. He became a civil rights attorney and ran for mayor in 2014, losing to Ras Baraka in an election in which education was a top issue.

With a new crop of officeholders now sworn in and education policymakers beginning to advance their agendas, Jeffries talked with The 74’s Beth Hawkins about realities both harsh and promising that he sees in Democratic politics in 2019.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Talk in the wake of the 2016 and 2018 elections is that the politics of education is increasingly difficult, that given President Trump’s and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s positions, Democrats must move to the left and play to traditional constituencies. What do you say?

Jeffries: Even in this blue wave, I’m seeing a mixed picture. Polls consistently show very few voters are voting on the basis of education, so we don’t want to overread, or underread, what’s going on. Jobs, health care — those are the big issues. And then a reaction to the values of Trump. Education policies really go down the agenda.

The transition from President Obama to President Trump, for Democrats who believe in education innovation, it’s obviously a big shift. Because we abhor almost everything [Trump] stands for. We abhor his rhetoric, we abhor the overwhelming majority of the tenets that he has, the policy agenda that’s discernible. It’s very much against educational equity and educational opportunity, and so we’re very strongly opposed.

That may have caused some people to be confused. It never really caused any confusion for us, because we and the Democrats we work with throughout the country wanted to be very clear about assuming education innovation and choice reform is a way to bring about equity for young people.


 

“There’s overwhelming support again, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, for a wide range of choice within the public education system, including public charter schools. There’s strong evidence for holding politicians accountable to make sure that schools work for kids, that there’s many options, and that parents are at the center of making decisions about the option that best serves their children.”


 

We’ve heard Elizabeth Warren back off things she said about schools before she was a senator. Beto O’Rourke didn’t mention his family’s background in education reform during his Senate campaign. What is the path forward for a Democratic federal candidate right now?

We have some data from [the Benenson Strategy Group], a leading Democratic pollster, that finds support for our agenda overwhelmingly, with Democratic primary voters, and especially with African-American and Latino Democratic primary voters who can form the base of the voters in the Democratic primary in 2020.

There’s overwhelming support again, particularly among African Americans and Latinos, for a wide range of choice within the public education system, including public charter schools. There’s strong evidence for holding politicians accountable to make sure that schools work for kids, that there’s many options, and that parents are at the center of making decisions about the option that best serves their children.

In terms of investing in our teachers, paying our teachers what they deserve, given that they have a very difficult job, providing them support and professional development, but then also making sure we’re holding the entire system accountable for results, there’s tremendous gain in the polls.

We’re going to push candidates who want to make education a core part of a platform to lean in on this agenda. We’re going to be talking to all the leading candidates — and we have some who have a strong track record. Sen. [Cory] Booker has a 20-year track record of pushing on these issues.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be naïve. The election’s going to be a referendum on President Trump. We do think that we have some candidates who will lean in on our issue. And without a doubt, there’ll be some who are going to be opposed. That’s the nature of politics, and that’s frankly why we exist, to create more political support for those who are willing to do the right thing for children.

We now have a number of states with multiple legislative chambers and executive offices controlled by Democrats. How does the path there, and the issues there, look different from the federal ones?

It depends on who’s in leadership in each state, what their agenda is, and how open they are to change. We have some states that are much better than others in that regard; there’s no question about that.

For example, Colorado, where we now have a Democrat trifecta — we have Democrats running the House and Senate, and Gov. Jared Polis —is going to look very different than New York. There’ll probably be more challenges in New York. There’s a perception that most education reform support has come from the Republicans there. There’ll potentially be some blowback that we have to navigate our way through, particularly in the state Senate.

In Connecticut, we also have Democrats taking over, and we have a strong foothold. Many of the leaders and the legislators there feel like we’re in a good position to continue to move the agenda.


 

“Sick children don’t learn well. Children who have to move every other month because of housing insecurity, those kids aren’t going to learn well. So we focus on the broad agenda Democrats have supported in the innovation space for many decades.”


 

Do you give people a tool kit of any kind to survive an ostensibly risky position?

We work at our state levels to also provide context-specific local polling data where we can show our candidates that the agenda we have, and the way we frame it, isn’t the way everyone in the ed reform space always frames it.

We’re very much focused on educational equity. We’re very practical in terms of support and solutions that the evidence demonstrates will work for children. We have a five-part agenda for resource equity, to accountability, to parental choice, to teacher prep, to higher ed. We work on all these issues. We work on intersectional issues.

We understand that there’s certain actors who want to disinvest in housing in communities, and certain actors want to disinvest in health care. That’s all going to affect our children. Sick children don’t learn well. Children who have to move every other month because of housing insecurity, those kids aren’t going to learn well. So we focus on the broad agenda Democrats have supported in the innovation space for many decades. We champion what we call the Obama Agenda, which is broadly supported by Democrats, broadly supported by voters.

Related

Jeffries: What School Choice Means for Democrats in the Age of Trump

Of course, there’s status quo forces in politics. If you have a group that spends a significant amount to push their position, like the [National Rifle Association] does on the gun control issue, you can move an agenda pretty significantly. The teachers unions, on the charter issue, we disagree with them. We agree with them on some other issues. They’ve been doing this work for about 50 years, both at the national level and in states and local communities.

Part of the challenge we have is not the substance of the issues, [it’s] whether or not [Democrats] can have the political cover to do the things they want to do or are worried that — particularly on the charter issue — if they lean in there will be repercussions in terms of a response from the teachers unions. That’s where we frankly have to have a larger infrastructure.


 

“We’ve seen an uprising of teachers demanding that they’re paid equitably, which we fully support and have always supported. There could be a grand bargain in marrying investments in teacher pay with empirically rooted professional development programs that are shown to help teachers drive achievement in the classroom.”


 

We’re also very clear that when this issue is framed as part of a corporate agenda, as privatized public education, a disinvestment in public education, as for-profit actors that come into the public education space to prey upon the community — that’s obviously a losing frame.

But if the frame is who we are as an organization, who our candidates are? Which is, we have systems that have done some conflict and damage, that have not done what they need to do for children. We need to innovate, and we need to bring change, and we can’t just keep doing things over and over that have not worked. That’s not only a winning frame electorally, it’s also a winning frame from a policy standpoint in terms of driving change for children.

There are a number of recent examples of grand political compromises. I’m thinking of Sens. Tim Scott and Cory Booker joining forces to promote apprenticeships and make lynching a hate crime. I’m thinking of Koch Industries and the Ford Foundation on mass incarceration. Do you see any hope of grand education bargains out there? What might they be, and who might drive them?

We’ve seen an uprising of teachers demanding that they’re paid equitably, which we fully support and have always supported. There could be a grand bargain in marrying investments in teacher pay with empirically rooted professional development programs that are shown to help teachers drive achievement in the classroom.

There could be a grand compromise about not only forcing more schools of education to be accountable, but also bringing some innovative providers in that space. Whether it’s providers like the Relay Graduate School of Education or Urban Teacher Preparation Academy, which are much more clinical-based, much more focused on the practicalities of what our teachers need to actually drive educational achievement in classrooms day in and day out, and which are already holding themselves accountable for the efficacy of their graduates.

These new programs also, by the way, tend to be more diverse as well.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years about connecting with black parents. Where have folks gone wrong?

What I’m about to say I don’t think applies everywhere. In some cities, we had charters that were run by young white leaders. And as the charter schools grew in some of these cities, you had a load of black and brown folks frankly being dispossessed, laid off from the educational system. So you had an obvious political problem, which is particularly, again, the legacy of race in our country.

Where that happened, where we saw charters and charter management organizations disproportionately run by white leaders with little background in those communities — a blind person could tell anybody with a brain, we’re having a political problem. Right?

I’m very confident that we would’ve gotten even better outcomes if we had local educators who had the same access to resources as some of the educators who were in their 20s and very inexperienced coming to these communities. That’s going to strike black people as white supremacy: that the only people who can come in and educate kids of color well are 26-, 27-, 28-year-old white folks from all over the place, and those of us who were in these areas 15, 20, 25, 30 years, we don’t know what we’re doing. Even if that wasn’t what the intent was, that’s how we were received.

I want to be very clear, there is tremendous power in external thinking, in people who’ve done work in other places, who can say, “Look, this has worked in other places, this may work here.” But local leaders need to drive and be at the setup.

There’s tons of studies that show clearly — I’ve seen studies showing even 40 percent increases in student achievement — that when kids of color are educated by leaders of color, teachers of color, that achievement builds.

Many people were struck by the video of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, your cousin and a DFER endorsee, nominating Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. Are you willing to handicap whether he could become the first black speaker?

I’d love to see that. On many levels, he embodies Obama’s agenda on a range of issues, from health care to the economy to education to the need for reform in mass incarceration. He’s very respected throughout the caucus, and we think he’s very well positioned to be the next speaker after Speaker Pelosi.

He’s certainly in line. He’s the chair of the Democratic caucus. It looks like Pelosi says she will step down in four years. The bottom line is, with leadership, they’re in their mid- to late 70s. They only have so many years left.

What do you want readers to take away from this conversation?

My core message is that I think the future is bright. Politics are difficult and challenging. Politics is cyclical. In the context of the realities of those political dynamics, the progress we’ve made in a decade is tremendous. The number of governors, the number of mayors, the number of local school boards that have driven reform and innovation, from charters to higher ed to accountability to resource equity to the teacher training pipeline is tremendous.

And we’re well positioned to build on that work, but we have to continue to do political work. We have to be committed to doing the political thinking, the political investment, the community organizing, supporting the right leaders, messaging our issues the right way. We have to do this for 20 or 25 years.

This isn’t, “Let’s do this for three to five years and think then we can go home.” This is long-term work. Those of us who love children, and love this country, we have to be committed to the long game in order to get to that outcome that we all seek.

See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

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