School Choice & Charters Opinion

Steve Barr Tries to Bridge Union-Reformer Divide in Reboot of California’s ‘Democrats for Education Reform’

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 12, 2014 4 min read
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Steve Barr has organizing in his DNA. The first time we saw him decades ago, he was standing in front of a school with a big container of Starbucks chatting up parents as he poured coffee. As a college student he started “Rock the Vote.” While he is best known for starting Green Dot charter schools, he’s returning to his organizer roots as he looks to revive and reinvent the controversial California branch of Democrats for Education Reform.

In its last incarnation, California DFER was led by former state senator Gloria Romero, who ran for superintendent of public instruction in 2010. The teachers unions loathed her, supported her opposition, and she didn’t make it into the runoff against Tom Torlakson, the current superintendent. In 2012, she endorsed Proposition 32, the business-sponsored initiative that would have sharply limited union power in the state’s politics. In response, Barr, a strongly pro-union Democrat, resigned from the organization’s advisory committee. Romero left DFER shortly afterwards, and the California chapter went dormant.

Barr is not a prototypical DFER state leader. The organization is aggressively pro-charter, as Barr is, but DFER often demonizes unions. In both Southern California and New York City, the schools Barr has started are unionized. The California Green Dot schools are affiliated with the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the charter he started in the Bronx was undertaken in cooperation with AFT president Randi Weingarten.

In the rebooted Cal-DFER, Barr is partnering with Joe Boyd, the retired executive director of the Teacher Association of Long Beach, a CTA/National Education Association affiliate. “I wanted to get into the space where people can work together about things they agree on,” he told us in an interview. “This is about the politics of collaboration.”

Boyd said he retired early from the CTA to take on this new effort. While stopping well short of saying that the state teachers union endorses his association with DFER, he noted, “I have an open line of communication with Joe Nuñez (the CTA executive director.)”

Union leaders have always been suspicious of DFER, and most recently AFT president Weingarten expressly challenged it, launching Democrats for Public Education. Given their past association, it will be interesting to see how she responds to Barr’s and Boyd’s new roles.

In an interview with us last week, Barr said he was exasperated by his March 2014 experience as a panelist on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now” show, when host Amy Goodman put him up against two NYC union activists shortly after the election of Mayor Bill DiBlasio. The activists presumed that the pro-charter Barr was anti-union, and Barr spent much of the show arguing that charters and unions could partner in school improvement.

He told us, there’s “a false distinction between unions and reform.” We [Green Dot] could not have done that without being union. How do you create working conditions for the best and brightest to come in.”

Although Cal-DFER comes back on line in the midst of an election, Barr pledges that it will sit out the campaign for superintendent of public instruction even though challenger Marshall Tuck, “was my first hire at Green Dot.” Barr plans to spend the rest of the year traveling the state listening to teachers, parents, community leaders, and unionists.

He wants to assemble a “big ideas” work group, channel the ghost of former governor Pat Brown and build on the ideas forwarded by son, Jerry. “The story is how much smarter and more brilliant Jerry Brown is than most politicians nationally.... But Jerry Brown’s 76.”

Sometime next year he plans to launch a political action committee, “I’d like to find out how to light a fire under some of the electeds,” he said. The “electeds” include school board members, particularly in Los Angeles Unified, where Barr, who lives in Silver Lake, sends his kids to public school.

There’s paradox in all of this. Barr talks about bridging the divide, but the state Democratic Party is not particularly divided, which is part of the California Exceptionalism we’ve been writing about. Traditionally, DFER has positioned itself as a new faction within the party, one opposed to the public school establishment. There were plenty of “rigid state bureaucrats” references in our conversation, yet state school board president Michael Kirst is one of the “smart people” Barr listens to. And Jerry Brown, who Barr lionizes, has broad disagreement with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who Barr sees as one of the spearheads of reform.

Barr thinks that there are a set of common-sense reforms that the vast majority of Democrats will support and some big picture ideas that will excite their imagination, and he thinks that he can carry the unions with him. Barr’s not short on brash; he just might carry it off.

(David Menefee-Libey is a professor of politics at Pomona College.)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.