Now that the Democrats for Education Reform memo recommending education choices for Obama is circulating, people are asking me who DFER is and if they’re important.
The short answer is that they’re the ones who are stoking the war inside the Democratic Party over education. But we don’t yet know how influential they are, because the ultimate coup for them would be to get the names they want into the U.S. Department of Education — and to block the names that pointedly are not on their list. (A co-chair to Obama’s education advisory committee, Linda Darling-Hammond, is one of those people.) We won’t know whether they can do that until Obama actually makes appointments.
Now for the longer answer.
A profile I wrote of the group for The New York Sun last year, when they were going public, explains that DFER is a political action committee founded by a group of Manhattan money managers with a coterie of Harvard Business school degrees between them. I took one founding member, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, as an example of how they got interested in education:
Mr. Curry’s story is typical. After graduating from Yale in 1988, he worked at a consulting firm that specialized in selling best-practices tips to big industries, like hospitals or banks. In 1990 the firm took on a pro bono project, meeting with 15 school superintendents at a conference in San Francisco. “Where could we help you?” the consultants asked. The room was silent. “It soon became clear that unlike somebody who was running a bank, their issue wasn’t that they didn’t know what to do,” Mr. Curry recalled. “It was that they didn’t have the ability to do it.” Interest groups with a stake in the status quo, they explained — teachers’ unions, janitors’ unions, parents groups, the federal government — had made change impossible.
The firm abandoned its project, deeming it a lost cause.
Curry’s co-founders shared similar stories. And they all reached the same conclusion, which they described as saddening: In order for innovation to happen, barriers needed to be cleared, but elected officials of their own Democratic party did not seem interested in clearing them. Democrats were opposing innovations such as charter schools, performance-based pay systems, and test-based accountability systems — often, the founders decided, not because they didn’t believe in them, but because they were voting in line with teachers unions, which opposed those innovations.
The purpose of DFER is to urge Democrats not to listen to the teachers unions alone. As I put it in my profile:
Teachers’ unions may give a big boost to the Democratic Party, but so do those working in finance. If Democrats for Education Reform can convince them to press issues like length of the school day and merit-based teacher pay, it could force a dramatic swing in the party itself.
It’s now been 18 months since I wrote that story. In the last year DFER has given $2 million to Democrats who support their preferred policies. Many of these Democrats are raising their profiles: Cory Booker of Newark, Adrian Fenty of D.C. And the latest: the NBA star-turned-new-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, whom Steven Colbert last night referred to as “Little Barack.”
But the real test has not been settled yet.