Democratic Education PAC Hopes for Its Moment Under Obama

By Alyson Klein — November 26, 2008 7 min read

For years, the teachers’ unions were the key players in the political money game to help further education policy objectives.

But since its inception in 2005, Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee based in New York City, has sought to use campaign donations to smooth the way for policies such as expanding charter schools and differential pay for teachers that are sometimes opposed by traditional Democratic constituencies.

Now the group, which helped raise about $2 million for Democratic candidates for president, Congress, and state offices during this year’s elections, is seeking to put its stamp on the presidential transition, suggesting legislative priorities, and floating potential hires for core education positions.

The chairman of DFER’s board is Kevin P. Chavous, who left the city council in the District of Columbia in 2005 after losing his re-election bid. He blames his defeat largely on an anti-incumbency fervor, but said his support for expanding charter schools and private school vouchers didn’t help matters.

“I got beat up pretty bad,” Mr. Chavous said. “It was clear to me that a lot of Democrats were not really informed about the utility of charters and school choice.”

But, he said, many of those elected Democrats told him they would consider supporting such policies if “they had more of a landing area on which to fall.”

Mr. Chavous met with some Democratic donors and policymakers who shared his vision for education policy. They included Howard L. Fuller, a former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee; John Petry, a partner with Gotham Capital; and Whitney Tilson, the founder and managing partner of T2 Partners LLC and the Tilson Mutual Funds.

The group launched DFER in 2005. Joe Williams, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, joined the group in 2007 and is now its executive director.

Although DFER aspires to be influential in national politics, much of its early work has been centered in New York state. The organization, which has supported Gov. David A. Paterson, helped get legislation approved last year that lifted a cap on charter schools in the state, said Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the 1 million-student New York City public school system.

“I think they’ve articulated a strong reform position,” Mr. Klein said in an interview. He said the group had been effective at helping to spur a discussion of education redesign within the Democratic Party.

But John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said that DFER’s reach has been more or less confined to the Empire State.

“I don’t get an idea that they have a lot of depth in their constituency group,” Mr. Wilson said. “I think their footprint is very limited.” He doesn’t consider the group “a national powerbroker.”

Transition Memo

The organization’s board of directors includes some prominent names in education policy think tanks, such as Alan D. Bersin, a former secretary of education in California; Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector in Washington, who worked on education policy in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration; and Mr. Tilson. And the group’s board of advisers includes Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who has championed charter schools.

“There are some big names on this list,” said Paul Manna, a professor of public policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “Whether or not they eventually have influence in the end, it seems like they are pretty serious about marshaling a strong force here.”

Last month, DFER sent President-elect Barack Obama’s transition staff a memo specifying who it would want to see crafting education policy in the White House and serving in central positions in the Department of Education.

DFER recommended Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system, for secretary of education, eschewing Mr. Klein of New York City and Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who, the organization wrote, might be viewed by some as too confrontational to be effective.

In the memo, DFER suggested some of its own board members for top Education Department posts, such as Mr. Rotherham for deputy education secretary. The organization was careful to designate which candidates on its list had ties to the group.

President-elect’s Choices

Last week, Mr. Obama eschewed DFER’s advice to appoint Jonathan H. Schnur, the founder of New Leaders for New Schools and a campaign adviser, to the White House’s top domestic policy position. Mr. Obama instead named Melody C. Barnes to direct the Domestic Policy Council and Heather A. Higginbottom as the council’s deputy. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Higginbottom had similar positions during the campaign.

In addition to making contributions to candidates, DFER also functions as a support group of sorts for Democrats who want to champion policies such as expanding charter schools, accountability, and differential pay for educators, Mr. Williams said. Some affiliated with the organization, including Mr. Chavous, support private school vouchers, but DFER has not taken an official position on the issue.

Part of the group’s mission is to foster relationships among donors, policymakers, educators, and parents, Mr. Williams said. For instance, it has held small group dinners with members of the New York state legislature, charter school teachers and parents, and DFER donors. In October, the group held an “education minute” for Barack Obama, raising about $50,000 online for his presidential campaign in 60 seconds.

DFER has held fundraising events in New York City for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and for Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who is the majority whip, the third-highest ranking position in the House of Representatives, among others.

The group helped arrange for Rep. Clyburn to visit the Harlem Success Academy Charter School, which was co-founded by Mr. Petry. Mr. Clyburn referenced the visit in an opinion piece published in the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier. He advocated for expanding public school choice, an issue that was under debate at the time in South Carolina.

This summer, Rep. Clyburn was on hand at a high-profile event, sponsored by DFER and other education redesign organizations, held in Denver on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Ms. Rhee also participated, as did Mr. Klein.

And during the convention, Mr. Williams and Mr. Petry sat in the Democratic National Committee’s skybox during Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech, an honor reserved for top and potentially generous donors.

Donor Matches

DFER acts as a federal political action committee, but it also helps match potential donors with candidates, Mr. Williams said. The PAC amassed $165,370 in the last election cycle, according to the most recent data available from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group in Washington. In all, DFER, raised about $2 million for Democrats in that time, Mr. Williams said.

Still, the NEA and its affiliates have raised at least $40 million for Democrats on the federal, state, and local level, during the last election cycle, Mr. Wilson estimated. And the union provides significant help with get-out-the-vote efforts.

That can be “a very powerful resource for candidates,” Mr. Wilson said, beyond even political contributions.

But Mr. Chavous said his organization never expected to emulate the NEA.

“We never had a goal to match the NEA on what they do and how they do it,” Mr. Chavous said. He said DFER can be effective because many Democratic policymakers will embrace education-redesign ideas, if given the necessary political cover.

“Most people, if they have a little bit of incentive, will jump out there because the equities are on our side,” he said.

Some have criticized DFER’s tactics, particularly the memo to the Obama transition team, as emblematic of a brusque, New York City-esque style.

“That memo was the audacity of hubris,” said Sherman Dorn, a professor of social foundations at the University of South Florida and author of the 2007 book Accountability Frankenstein. He said it was as if the group was saying “we don’t want to do coalition building, we just want all our own people.”

Mr. Chavous defended the memo. “We’re going to be strategic and aggressive at every turn because we feel our kids can’t wait,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Democratic Education PAC Hopes for Its Moment Under Obama


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