The biggest political boogeyman in Denver’s competitive school board races this year is a pro-reform student organization that members describe as authentic and independent, but that skeptics have pegged as a front for big-money corporate interests.

The Students for Education Reform Action Network has been knocking on voters’ doors all summer to talk about the three school board candidates endorsed by its members, local college students who believe the public education system should better serve all children.

The group has also spent more than $122,000 on canvassing, polling, consulting, and research. Its spending tops that of any other group thus far, including the Denver teachers union, which didn’t start canvassing for its endorsed candidates until August.

The sophisticated ground game and deep pockets of the organization known as SFER (pronounced ess-fur) are partly why union supporters see SFER as a threat. The “R” is especially troubling to them, given that reform is associated with shutting down struggling traditional public schools and replacing them with independent charter schools with higher test scores.

But the college students knocking on doors this summer find the idea that they are cogs in a well-oiled school-destroying machine laughable.

“We’re just, like, students that care about other students,” said Dena Firkins, a college senior at the University of Denver who attended Denver Public Schools as a young child before moving to rural Colorado to live with her grandparents. “We have a voice, and students in schools don’t have voices, really, because no one is going to listen to them — and they can’t vote.

“Because we are recent students, and we are voters, we can fight on their behalf.”

At the doors

Here’s what that looked like on a Friday afternoon in August.

Emma Menchaca-Chavez, a Denver Public Schools graduate and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, rang a doorbell in the upper-middle-class Stapleton neighborhood. When a fit man with a shaved head answered the door, the college sophomore launched into her speech about school board candidate Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who SFER endorsed for an at-large seat.

Menchaca-Chavez told him how Menocal Harrigan is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools (she’s not actually; she went to Denver schools as a young child), and how she now has children in the district. She emphasized how Menocal Harrigan wants to pay teachers more and provide them affordable housing options.

“And she wants to do all this by using the budget the district already has,” Menchaca-Chavez said. “With all that in mind, is Alexis someone you can possibly vote for?”

“Yeah, I’m going to go read,” the man said, taking a colorful full-page flyer from the college student on his porch. “That’s what elections are all about, right?”

Education politics in Denver have long been bitterly divided. While nearly every candidate is a Democrat, they are split into two camps: those supported by the teachers union, and those supported by pro-reform groups.

Pro-reform candidates have controlled the Denver school board for more than a decade. In that time, the district has undergone a host of reforms in an effort to improve education for its nearly 93,000 students, most of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families.

Some reforms, such as a strategy that has teachers coach other teachers, were well-received. Others, such as closing or replacing struggling schools, generated intense pushback. A merit pay system for teachers was so disliked that it led to a three-day teacher strike this past February. The proliferation of charter schools has been controversial because critics say they siphon students and money from traditional public schools.

Every two years, when seats on the Denver school board came up for election, the teachers union endorsed candidates who opposed the district’s reforms. But more often than not, union candidates lost to those backed by pro-reform groups and wealthy individual donors.

The biggest spender in the past several elections has been Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based 501(c)4 tax-exempt social welfare organization. Its tax forms indicate it’s run by Shavar Jeffries, the head of a national political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER (pronounced dee-fur), that has a chapter in Colorado.

As a social welfare organization, Education Reform Now Advocacy does not have to disclose its donors. But it does have to disclose its contributions. In 2015 and 2017, it gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Raising Colorado, a political committee run by DFER.

Raising Colorado turned around and spent more than $630,000 in 2015 and 2017 to elect pro-reform candidates to the Denver school board, dwarfing union spending and leading to accusations that “dark money” was buying board seats.

This year, DFER is sitting out the Denver school board election. Jennifer Walmer, head of the Colorado chapter, said the group is focusing on statewide issues instead.

But the teachers union is skeptical. SFER also has a chapter in Colorado, and its political committee has also gotten money from Education Reform Now Advocacy.

“While the DFERs are claiming they are, quote unquote, sitting this one out…I think they’re just changing their tactics,” said Rob Gould, acting president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “I worry the SFER group is how they’re changing tactics.”

Origin story

SFER insists it’s separate from DFER, despite their similar names.

“If we all could have looked forward … and seen what words have changed in our vocabulary, the name we have now wouldn’t have been our first choice, but it is what it is,” said Christian Esperias, SFER’s senior national director of campaign strategy.

DFER was formed in 2007 by Democratic New York hedge fund managers who believed in the power of charter schools and other reforms to improve education. Because many in their party opposed charters that didn’t abide by teachers union contracts, DFER was meant to be a “safe landing” for Democrats who thought differently, according to a profile of one of its founders.

Its goal was to raise millions of dollars to support what the profile called a “new breed of Democratic politicians” who embraced education reform.

SFER was founded in 2009 by two Princeton University students who believed in some of the same things. Co-founder Catharine Bellinger said she was inspired by the time she spent volunteering at a public KIPP charter school in Washington, D.C.

She came away with a strong sense that every student, no matter their background, deserves to attend a great school. At the end of her freshman year, she sent an email soliciting like-minded classmates to form a new campus group. When they named it Students for Education Reform, Bellinger said they didn’t even know DFER existed.

“We were just naming our organization so that we were who we said we were,” she said.

SFER’s members, she said, were a mix of students excited by President Obama’s Race to the Top education reform initiative, students studying to be teachers, and first-generation college students who wanted their experience to be the norm, not the exception.

SFER’s mission was to advocate for state and local policies that encouraged high expectations for students and teachers, choices for families, and accountability for schools. That’s looked like students in Los Angeles pushing to raise graduation standards, students in North Carolina advocating for college tuition equity for undocumented students, and students in Colorado demanding Denver hire more school mental health workers.

As SFER spread to more campuses, an evolution Bellinger describes as organic, leaders decided to incorporate as a nonprofit organization. But the process takes time, and Bellinger said SFER set out to find an already established nonprofit to act as its fiscal agent.

By then, they’d learned about DFER, and asked to meet with the head of Education Reform Now, the nonprofit associated with it, Bellinger said. Education Reform Now served as SFER’s fiscal agent until SFER became an official nonprofit.

But Bellinger, who left SFER in 2014 to finish her college degree and then took a job with DFER, is emphatic that Education Reform Now never exerted influence over SFER.

“At no point did ERN try to foist something on us,” Bellinger said.

Politically active

Soon after, SFER decided to get into political campaigning — and Denver was ground zero.

Because nonprofit organizations are prohibited from campaigning, SFER leaders incorporated a separate 501(c)4 social welfare organization that was not similarly prohibited.

The Students for Education Reform Action Network kicked off in the summer of 2013. The idea, Bellinger said, was to raise money to hire college students as “fellows” to knock on doors for pro-reform candidates, and learn the ropes of politics along the way.

“Campaign volunteers are often high-income, often white students who could afford taking the summer off,” Bellinger said. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to have a real diversity of fellows, with a focus on elevating the voices and career opportunities for Latino and African American college students, in particular.”

They chose Denver to launch the fellows program because it ticked all the boxes, Bellinger said: SFER had several active chapters here, local philanthropists were willing to donate money to pay the fellows more than minimum wage, and that year featured a highly contested measure on the ballot that would have raised income taxes to better fund Colorado schools.

Although the measure, called Amendment 66, failed, SFER students became hooked on political campaigns, said Esperias, SFER’s campaign strategy director.

“We found that our members absolutely loved this part of electoral work, where they get to talk to voters about their lived experience,” Esperias said.

SFER canvassed for Denver school board candidates in 2015 and 2017, spending a combined total of about $192,500 in those two years to support candidates who agreed with the district’s reforms, according to campaign finance reports.

This year, the Students for Education Reform Action Committee, an independent expenditure committee associated with SFER, could surpass that spending. It has already spent $67,576, on research, consulting, polling, and flyers for the Denver school board race, plus $54,814 of in-kind donations that Esperias said represents the wages paid to its fellows for canvassing.

That puts total spending by SFER at more than $122,000 — and the election isn’t until Nov. 5. The money came from the SFER Action Network, which does not have to disclose its donors.

Gould of the teachers union said SFER’s war chest is partly what makes him and others suspicious of the organization. The teachers union, which has about 3,900 dues-paying members, doesn’t have enough money to pay its canvassers, he said.

“Where are they getting all that money for a student organization?” Gould said.

‘Undecided’

Just because a student group’s values are closely aligned with the values of a non-student group, it doesn’t mean the young people are being manipulated, said Ben Kirshner, a University of Colorado education professor who studies youth organizing groups.

“In my research, I’ve seen that when youth organizations enter the political fray, one tactic that is used to undermine them is to claim they are being manipulated by other people who are not as appealing,” said Kirshner, who has not studied SFER and DFER specifically.

That seems to be the reigning theory among SFER skeptics, and there is evidence that DFER is not as appealing these days. In 2018, delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly overwhelmingly voted to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name.

However, Mohan Sivaloganathan, CEO of both SFER and the SFER Action Network, said he finds it insulting and absurd to charge that students who have been personally “affected by a broken education system” are puppets of an outside entity.

“Our students have incredible authentic voices,” he said. “We’re not interested in digging into the antiquated and polarizing debates in the past. What happens is students get left behind.”

The students themselves understand that some people think they’re pawns. They’ve seen the social media comments attacking SFER, and they’ve gotten hard questions at the doors.

Arianna Cooper said she tries to stay positive.

“My favorite saying is, ‘When they go low, we go high,’” said Cooper, a junior at Denver’s Regis University, quoting former first lady Michelle Obama.

Cooper was out canvassing that same Friday afternoon when she encountered a voter who put the adage to the test. The woman answered the door while on speaker phone, took a flyer, and skimmed it. When she came to a line about how the candidate wants to protect Denver students from the “harmful” policies of President Trump, she started shouting.

“Maybe she could fight for our kids instead of fighting against Donald Trump!” the woman said, still holding her phone in one hand. “That ticks me off!”

Cooper nodded politely and asked if the woman had any specific questions. The woman said no and shut the door. But as Cooper walked away, the woman opened it again.

“So is anyone running against her?” she shouted.

Cooper patiently answered the woman’s questions before the door shut again. Then Cooper turned her attention to an app on her phone that tracks voter interactions. The app asks canvassers to mark if a voter is supportive, opposed, or undecided. Cooper thought about how the woman was combative but also engaged and curious.

She clicked “undecided.”