Democrats for Education Reform: the local players


by David Safier

The national PAC Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) recently set up shop in Arizona. DFER is a pro "education reform" group funded primarily by hedge fund money that favors school choice, charter schools and vouchers with a bit of teacher union bashing on the side. It has clear connections to conservative groups pushing a nearly identical privatization agenda. By giving campaign cash and support to Democratic candidates and sitting legislators in exchange for them playing nice with conservatives on education legislation, DFER can pull in those few extra votes needed to pass legislation that moves funds toward charters and private schools and away from school districts. The California Democratic Party is concerned enough about the PAC's influence, it passed a formal resolution condemning DFER. For more information about DFER and relevant links, read my earlier post.

DFER Arizona has a State Director and six people sitting on its Board of Advisors. It's an interesting group. Most of them lean toward the moderate to conservative end of the Democratic Party but, so far as I can tell, they're genuine Democrats. The most suspect to me is the State Director, Christina María Martínez. Her connections with the conservative "education reform" movement appear to go beyond what you would expect from a Democrat, including serving as a lobbyist in Arizona for the very conservative American Federation for Children. Martinez and most of the others, no matter their Democratic credentials, have drunk the conservative privatization Kool Aid and want to spread the gospel amongst their fellow Democrats. This makes it even more important to make the group's agenda clear and to let people know who the Director and Board members are since they're often people working alongside us and voting with the rest of us on other issues.

DFER's Arizona State Director is Christina María Martínez. The Board Members, along with their thumbnail descriptions on the DFER website, are:

  • Rhonda Cagle, Senior Vice President of Communications, Imagine Schools
  • Victor Contreras, South Phoenix Community Leader, Arizona Licensed Realtor
  • Mark Cardenas, Arizona State Representatives, LD-13 [Cardenas is actually in LD-19. The website has it wrong.]
  • Julie Erfle, Writer and Speaker for Politics Uncuffed
  • Mel Hannah, Chairman of Arizona African American Leadership and Legislative Council (AAALLC)
  • Jaime Casap, Global Education Evangelist

Below the fold you'll find more details about the players that I've gleaned from Arizonans who know them and from the internet. The descriptions are incomplete, but they're a start.

Christina María Martínez, Arizona State Director. Martínez is reasonably well known in Democratic circles and has met with and given her support to Democratic legislators and candidates. She's a board member of Emerge Arizona and will be moderating the group's May 22 webinar, "The Power of Latino Leadership." She was also a board member of Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), a group which has received over a million dollars in funding from the ultra-conservative Walton [Walmart family] Foundation. Her company, Adelante Public Affairs & Communications, has as clients Pepsico, Miller/Coors, Frito Lay and Crescent Crown [beer] Distributing, as well as HCREO and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. I've been told by at least one legislator that she urges them to support the basic choice/privatization agenda.

DFER is closely connected to its conservative counterpart, the American Federation for Children (AFC). In 2011, Martínez was a registered lobbyist for AFC in Arizona. In February, 2012, Martínez spoke in favor of private school tuition
tax credits and the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Arizona's version
of school vouchers, during a State House Ways and Means Committee

In October, 2012, at an HCREO Legislative Summit, Martínez moderated a panel discussion, "Public Policy, Parental Choice, and the Landscape for Educational Options," whose panel consisted of an advisor for AFC and a state director for DFER. In a column she wrote on Huffington Post about how important the issue of education is to Hispanic voters, Martínez discussed a poll created jointly by HCREO and the AFC. One of the main points she drew from the poll was, "91% of Latino voters support distributing vouchers and tax credit scholarships should be available in some form."

Rhonda Cagle, Board of Advisors. Cagle is currently a Senior Vice President of Communications for Imagine Schools, a national Charter Management Organization which is, in my opinion, among the worst in the country and one I've written about extensively. Cagle is married to Lorenzo Sierra, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 Democratic primary in LD-19. Sierra was one of four Democrats running for the two House seats. He and one of the winning candidates, Mark Cardenas, were endorsed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), which gives most of its endorsements and campaign contributions to Republican candidates. The Democrats AFC endorses are in Democrat-majority districts where there are no viable Republican candidates.

Cagle has written that she used to be registered as an Independent and voted for both Democrats and Republicans but has registered as a Democrat since she married Sierra.

Mark Cardenas, Board of Advisors: Cardenas is a first term state representative from LD-19. Like Lorenzo Sierra who lost in the primary, Cardenas was endorsed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), which gives most of its
endorsements and campaign contributions to Republican candidates. The Democrats AFC endorses are in Democrat-majority districts where there are no viable Republican candidates.

Victor Contreras, Board of Advisors: Contreras is a realtor who ran for State Senate as a Democrat in 2010 and 2012. In his 2010 race, he received $6,188 in campaign contributions from the American Federation for Children. (In 2010, AFC also gave $12,235 to Al Melvin and $63,153 to John Huppenthal.)

In an Arizona Republic Q&A, Contreras stated, "I support school vouchers because they give parents another option and create more opportunities for students." He attended the February, 2012, House Ways and Means Committee meeting also attended by Christina María Martínez and, like her, supported private school tuition tax credits and the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Arizona's version of school vouchers.

On his Facebook page, Contreras stated in January, "Proud to support School Choice and the kickoff to School Choice Week here in PHX and across the country!" Also on FB, he told people they should see the film, "Won't Back Down," a film pushing parent triggers, the conservative legislation that allows parents to convert school district schools into charters.

Julie Erfle, Board of Advisors: Erfle's background doesn't fit neatly with the other board members. She became known when her husband, Phoenix Police Officer Nick Erfle, was killed by an ex-con who was in the country illegally. Officer Erfle's name was invoked by anti-immigration activists in support of SB1070, but Julie opposed SB1070 and is a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. Other than a post on her blog, Uncuffed, supporting some aspects of performance funding, she has not said or written anything I can find that would put her in the choice/education reform camp. In fact, in another blog post, she comments that charters don't produce better results than traditional public schools, there's no reason to think vouchers will result in better student achievement, and decreased regulation in education can create problems. I haven't found anything she has said or done that would make her a supporter of DFER.

Mel Hannah, Board of Advisors: Mel Hannah has a long list of accomplishments, including being the first African American to serve on the Flagstaff City Council. He has been connected with a wide variety of civic organizations including, in the area of education, Chair of the African American Advisory Council of the Arizona Department of Education and Chair of the Tempe Union High School District Diversity Committee. He is the current chair of the African American Legislative and Leadership Conference (AALLC), an organization founded by State Senator Leah Landrum Taylor. I found no information about Hannah's stances on conservative "education reform" issues.

Jaime Casap, Board of Advisors: Casap is a Google executive working on business development related to K-12 education. He is a fervent advocate of digital learning, which would make him a likely supporter of online learning and blended learning, both approaches advocated by the conservative "education reform" movement. He's a member of the Digital Learning Council founded by Jeb Bush and Bob Wise. He's also a faculty associate at ASU and serves on Arizona’s STEM Education Advisory Board.


  1. Where are the Democrats for Protecting Public Schools? And what happened to the AZ Education Network? Their website has not been updated since January. We are dying a slow death.