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The new face of Democrats who support education reform

Shavar Jeffries, an attorney who lost his bid to be mayor of Newark, N.J., is the new president of Democrats for Education Reform.

Jeffries, who confirmed the news on Thursday, is black. His appointment comes as the self-titled education reform movement tries to look more like the children it aims to uplift.

“There are no black people who lead these ... organizations,” said Derrell Bradford, the director of reform organization NYCAN (New York Campaign for Achievement Now), who is himself black. “I don’t see the world through that lens but it’s not lost on me.”

In California, DFER has sparred with the state Democratic Party but has recently kept a lower profile.

Jeffries is a lawyer who recently lost the election to become Newark’s mayor, despite DFER’s support. Jeffries grew up as a fifth-generation Newarker. After his mother was murdered, his grandmother took him in. He attended public schools in that low-income city, then earned a scholarship to a private preparatory school.

He went on to attend Duke University and ultimately Columbia Law School, a narrative that plays into the organization’s credo that education can be an escape route from extraordinarily difficult life circumstances. He served as president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and is a founding board member of TEAM schools, a charter school chain associated with KIPP schools, in New Jersey.

Jeffries is taking the place of Joe Williams, a former New York Daily News reporter who led DFER until recently. Williams is now working at the Walton Foundation, a major education philanthropy organization that is known for sponsoring the growth of specific charter school chains, sources said. Neither Williams nor the Walton Foundation could be reached immediately for comment.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Democrats for Education Reform emerged as an influential counter to teachers unions.

That year’s Democratic National Convention included a DFER seminar that received little publicity at the time, but has since been recognized as the start of a shift in how the party handles education. The idea was to move policymaking from the hands of teachers unions and let “education reform” -- the group’s term for a more technocratic way of thinking around schools -- lead the way.

"Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered," Cory Booker, who was then the mayor of Newark, said, according to Dana Goldstein’s recounting in the American Prospect. "I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters."

Now, five years later, DFER has seen parts of its agenda put into action, along with the backlash that followed. President Obama has tried his best to enact many of the group’s preferred policies that run counter to unions' desires, including teacher evaluations that take test scores into account and the support of charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run.

Mayors from cities including New York and Los Angeles have embraced these same priorities, and by now, Americans are familiar with the reform boom-bust cycle. In New York, much of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign hinged on bashing former Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- himself an education reform philanthropist -- for his schools agenda. In Los Angeles, after the tenure of Supt. John Deasy, much of current Supt. Ramon Cortines’ rhetoric has focused on repairing the district and rebuilding trust with the community.

Throughout the process, an undercurrent of critique has dogged the reform movement: the idea that many of these reformers are wealthy white people trying to impose what they think is best onto America’s struggling schools -- many of whose students are black and Latino. 

Martha Infante, a Los Angeles middle school teacher who is a member of the group Educolor, said she is skeptical about the meaning of organizations changing their leaders to better reflect the students they say they serve.

“You may have a person of color in charge of these organizations, but I don’t know how far removed they are from the action,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything to me. People removed from schools come in many different colors.”

Jeffries clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and for Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals before serving as an associate for Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. There, he fought for the rights of black farmers to receive loans. In 2001, he became general counsel at Gibbons P.C., a New Jersey law firm, and in 2014, he became a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, a national firm. 

In May 2014, Jeffries lost Newark’s election to Ras Baraka, a critic of Booker -- and particularly his education policies. Baraka won with the support of unions, which ran ads such as: “They’re coming. From Wall Street. From Trenton. To sell us Shavar Jeffries.”

The mayoral run, Bradford said, gave Jeffries the scars necessary to steer DFER back to political influence and relevance in 2015. “If there’s one person who knows how education reform ... [messes] things up in an election, it’s him,” Bradford said.

In California, DFER’s local chapter has certainly made its mark. Former state Sen. Gloria Romero was its first leader, and earned enemies quickly. In 2012, she went against DFER’s national leadership -- and the state Democratic Party -- in supporting Proposition 32, a measure that would have prevented teachers union dues pulled from members’ paychecks from being used to support political activity. At the time, Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, called Proposition 32 a “travesty.” Barr is now the director of California DFER.

Also in 2012, California’s Democratic Party sent DFER a “cease and desist” letter demanding that the organization stop using the party’s name in its own name.

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

10:11 a.m.: This article has been updated with confirmation of Jeffries' appointment.

This article was originally published on Sept. 2 at 6:20 p.m.

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