Mile High Madness

Activists used the Colorado Democratic Party platform to diss DFER. Will reformers learn their lesson?

On Saturday, state delegates of the Colorado Democratic Party passed an amendment to the party platform opposing the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform1 and calling on the organization drop “Democrats” from its name.

The vote followed an ugly scene on the floor of the party’s state assembly meeting, in which delegates loudly booed DFER Colorado state director Jennifer Walmer as she attempted to defend her organization, noting that the group is supported by a slew of prominent Colorado Democrats and is “focused on the idea that every child deserves access to a high-quality education.”

The jeering continued as others rose to oppose the platform amendment, including a charter school teacher and a delegate who urged the assembly to reject what he said amounted to an education reform “litmus test.”

DFER Colorado state director Jen Walmer was booed and shouted down by delegates as she attempted to defend the organization.

“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” Walmer told Chalkbeat after delegates passed the amendment. “I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of Trump and DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”

Part of a concerted strategy?

Not only was it a horrible display of unity, but it was the latest example of what appears to be a concerted strategy to get anti-education reform positions enshrined in Democratic Party platforms, and by extension, to marginalize reformers within the party.

It’s an effort that has its origins in 2013, when the California Democratic Party passed a resolution, co-sponsored by the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, that attacked DFER as a front for “corporations, Republican operatives and wealthy individuals dedicated to privatization and anti-educator initiatives.”

Interestingly enough, two years later that very same resolution ended up in the hands of a secret, NEA-funded group of teachers union officials and anti-reform activists called the Louisiana Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. As I documented in a series of blog posts in 2016, I used public records requests to secure more than a year’s worth of the group’s internal correspondence, in which they fleshed out a strategy to secure a statewide moratorium on charter schools. The documents also showed that LAROS was planning to present its own anti-DFER resolution, modeled on the one passed in California in 2013, to the Louisiana Democratic Party.

The thirty core members of LAROS included officers from the Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers and long-time anti-reform activists like Karran Harper Royal.

The teachers unions and their allies subsequently pulled off a public relations coup when they rammed through a series of last-minute amendments to the national Democratic Party platform in the weeks leading-up to the presidential convention in 2016. The changes opposed the use of test results to evaluate schools and teachers, upheld the right of parents to opt-out of testing, and criticized charter schools.

These things matter.

Some pro-reform Democrats respond to these efforts to hijack party platforms with a shrug. They insist platforms don’t really matter and they can point to significant numbers of Democratic voters and elected officials who support things like charters and school accountability.

These are both valid points. I mean, how many of us has read their state Democratic Party platform cover to cover? (Me neither.) And yes, it’s true that there are plenty of Democratic voters and officeholders who agree with reformers on education issues. But those aren’t the folks we need to be worried about.

We need to worry about the registered Democrat outside Boston who doesn’t really understand charters, but heard they’re promoted by billionaire Republicans and therefore votes against raising the charter cap. We need to worry about the freshman Democratic lawmaker who might be inclined to support school accountability legislation, but is afraid the teachers union will attack her for supporting the “Trump-Devos agenda.” We want the parent in Los Angeles to understand that when their school board member backs a unified enrollment system, it doesn’t mean he’s a “privatizer” intent on destroying public education.

Yet when our opponents are able to get their policies adopted in Democratic Party platforms, it generates headlines that make it harder for our messages to reach those folks. It also makes reformers and the issues we champion appear out-of-sync with the party mainstream, even though these very same policies were championed by the Obama Administration.

Arne and Barack: The original Democrats for Education Reform.

DFER and other pro-reform Democrats shouldn’t cede the field when it comes to these intramural fights. It means there needs to be an effort to get reformers elected as delegates, members of state Democratic Central Committees, and other positions of influence within the party. We also need to ensure we’re at the table when things like platforms and endorsements are being debated. Otherwise pro-reform Democrats could find themselves not only shouted down by their party, but possibly crowded out of it.

  1. Full disclosure: I am an (unpaid) advisory board member for the Louisiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, although the thoughts expressed here are exclusively my own. 

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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