Buyer Beware! “Democrats for Education Reform” has arrived in Arizona


by David Safier

The term "education reform" is conservative shorthand for the vast, well funded education privatization movement. So why would a Democratic PAC adopt conservative educators' favorite term and call itself Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)? The answer is, DFER, which gets most of its funding from hedge fund billionaires, is interconnected with a number of conservative "education reform" groups, and its purpose is to woo Democratic legislators over to the education privatization side by weaving together bits and pieces of the Democratic agenda with support for vouchers and charter schools while throwing in a bit of teacher-union-bashing on the side.

DFER just set up a branch here in Arizona. Democratic legislators beware. Someone from DFER will be knocking on your door, pitching the PAC's "education reform" agenda as if it's a Democratic program and plying you with campaign contributions.

How non-Democratic is DFER? The California Democratic Party passed a resolution opposing the group, saying it "is funded by corporations, Republican operatives and wealthy individuals dedicated to privatization and anti-educator initiatives, and not grassroots Democrats or classroom educators."

This post is a very compressed version of information I've found about DFER, with links allowing you to read further if you wish.

Democratic legislators have pretty much made peace with the charter school movement and usually do little more than try to counter its excesses and add more oversight — if that. So DFER's support of charter schools doesn't raise many eyebrows. But DFER's support for school vouchers is another thing entirely. In Wisconsin, DFER supported the expansion of Milwaukie's voucher program. The Wisconsin chapter is led by a former Democratic state representative, Jason Fields, who fought for vouchers alongside Republicans. He and DFER are encouraging the state to raise the per-pupil allotments for both  voucher students and charter schools. We can expect similar activity from DFER in Arizona where the charter and voucher roots are deeply planted.

DFER is part of an interlocking network of "education reform" groups. These groups don't have to disclose their donors so it's difficult to know who funds the organizations. DFER's board is heavy with hedge fund managers who, one would guess, make significant contributions. The Walton Foundation — the WalMart family's ultra-conservative funding source for pro-voucher, pro-privatization groups — also funds the groups. We know,for instance, that DFER's advocacy wing, Education Reform Now, got at least $2.4 million from the Walton Foundation.

DFER is closely linked to the openly conservative American Federation for Children (AFC), which created an uproar in Arizona when it sent out a mail piece supporting Maria Garcia, Jorge Garcia's widow who ran in 2012 to fill her late husband's State Senate seat. It's also linked to the Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO), which made $1.3 million in media buys to support the DC voucher program and worked closely with Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal to pass his voucher legislation (which was recently ruled unconstitutional). BAEO's current president wrote a book, "Ten Myths about School Choice: Answering the Campaign against School Vouchers."

The most obvious link between DFER, AFC and BAEO is Kevin Chavous, a former DC Councilman who supported the DC voucher program while he was in office. He is a vocal member of the DFER Board at the same time he's Executive Counsel for AFC. He's also the former Chair and Board member of BAEO.

Arizona's new DFER branch is headed by Christina M. Martinez. Martinez has an impressive resume, including her tenure as a Board member of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), a group which has received over a million dollars in funding from the Walton Foundation. Martinez wrote a piece on Huffington Post last year saying education is more important than immigration to Hispanic voters. Most the statistics she cited indicate that Hispanic voters overwhelmingly support "choice and competition among schools to improve education." According to her figures, "91% of Latino voters support distributing vouchers and tax credit scholarships should be available in some form."

Here's how DFER describes itself:

Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a political action committee with 13 state offices whose mission is to encourage a more productive dialogue within the Democratic Party on the need to fundamentally reform American public education. DFER operates at all levels of government to educate elected officials and support reform-minded candidates for public office.

When DFER says it wants to "fundamentally reform American public education," it means business, literally. The fundamental reformation it's talking about is the dismantling of our system of public education and replacing it with publicly financed, privately controlled schools which operate by their own rules. Any Democrats willing to go along with DFER's conservative "education reform" agenda can expect DFER's support, financial and otherwise, when they run for office.


  1. A year ago I was on a site council and brought voter registration materials to a meeting. One of the teachers (unfortunately my child’s teacher) admitted that he hadn’t voted in 10 years. With all of the issues in TUSD and affecting teachers across the state? I know some teachers who are mightily involved, but I am afraid that they are the exceptions.

  2. Hi Bess,

    The monied interests have found their way in across the country (and especially here in Arizona). Like Jana said, some Democrats are letting this happen. My school has decided to spend 70K on Franklin Covey’s “Leader In Me” program. This is happening as we lose teachers due to budget cuts and run out of paper and supplies on a regular basis.

    I think you teach at a Title One school, like I do. You know that Hispanic families care very deeply about their child’s education, yet they (like most Arizonans) are very low efficacy voters. The same can be said for teachers in our state. In my experience (I live in Phoenix), a majority of teachers are not at all politically aware and many actually vote for Republicans! I’ve spent a couple of decades trying to change that. What more can we do?

    My students mean the world to me, but I’m in the “letting go” phase at this point. 🙁

  3. As I see it, public education in Arizona is ripe for the corporate taking, thanks to a Legislature determined to privatize/profitize, a largely ill-informed electorate, and a weak teacher’s union. Thankfully, my children finished K-12 just in time.

    If Latino voters buy into this, they deserve what they get.

  4. Keep telling the truth about “reforms,” Dave. Repubs have no problem pushing this stuff through the leg as it is. If Dems start drinking the snake oil that DFER sells, we are all doomed. We need to role model critical thinking. I know of no other field where untested ideas are sold across the board to a whole nation, treating our kids like lab rats en masse.