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Who are Democrats for Education Reform?

And why do they keep bashing public schools and unions?

Joe Williams heads Democrats for Education Reform and its sister organization, EJoe Williams heads Democrats for Education Reform and its sister organization, Education Reform Now. DFER advisory board member Joel Greenblatt is a protégé of fallen junk-bond iconDFER advisory board member Joel Greenblatt is a protégé of fallen junk-bond icon Michael Milliken. Hedge-fund manager John Petry, a DFER board member, co-founded the Harlem SuccesHedge-fund manager John Petry, a DFER board member, co-founded the Harlem Success Academy Charter School with Eva Moskowitz.

There’s a political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform. A great name, but I heard that they only support nonunion charter schools, bash unions and get subsidized by Wall Street hedge-fund managers. What’s up with that?

You heard right. They’re like other public school bashers, except they call themselves Democrats. Democrats for Education Reform claims that it “leads efforts to frame the fight that is playing out within the Democratic Party on education issues.” It tries to accomplish that by pushing aside teacher unions as education spokespeople or even as informed practitioners. The organization advocates for nonunion charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations, curbs on tenure and removing teacher unions from almost any role in shaping curriculum or determining working conditions.

In just three years, DFER directed more than $17 million into political and grassroots advocacy for its version of education reform and for what Joe Williams, the group’s executive director and a former Daily News education reporter, credits as “creating momentum which has the potential to dominate education policymaking for years to come.”

DFER calls Barack Obama “the first ever Democratic president elected without significant support of teachers’ unions” — a shocker to those UFT members who went to toss-up state Pennsylvania to stump for Obama and to AFT and NEA members nationwide who campaigned for the candidate in 2008.

Board member Whitney Tilson is chief of T2 Partners and Tilson Funds and vice chBoard member Whitney Tilson is chief of T2 Partners and Tilson Funds and vice chair of New York’s KIPP Academy Charter Schools. David Einhorn, another hedge-funder on DFER’s advisory board, is president of GrDavid Einhorn, another hedge-funder on DFER’s advisory board, is president of Greenlight Capital, LLC.

What has DFER been up to in New York?
In New York State elections this fall, the group stumped exclusively for pro-charter candidates, but because it has no community membership, just a letterhead stacked with super-rich backers, it advertised on Craigslist for campaign workers. DFER was zero for three on the incumbent state senators that it targeted in the Democratic primary.

The ex-Bloomberg aide tapped to topple Harlem state Sen. Bill Perkins, who took issue with charter management companies for their lack of accountability, got clobbered. State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Shirley Huntley also handily defeated DFER-backed insurgents in the primary. Among the group’s key list of 15 nationally endorsed candidates in the November elections, just seven won.

Why do Democrats for Education Reform hate teachers?
They say they don’t (hard to believe if you look at their policy positions). It is unions that they say they hate.

What’s their beef with unions?
That we exist. It’s the typical economic royalist rationale, that unions — unlike themselves — are selfish special interests. They’re deaf to counter-arguments that what’s good for kids is good for teachers, too, and that tenure means due process and not job security for incompetents.

Who are these people? They don’t sound like Democrats.
If party registration and political donations indicate political allegiance, these DFER deep pockets are blue-blood Democrats. The group’s financial records show board members, advisers and the organization itself contributing heavily to Democratic campaigns as well as to the Democratic National Committee and its Senate and House election committees. However, when it suits their anti-union agenda, DFER leaders are only too happy to cross party lines and endorse Republicans, as DFER’s Whitney Tilson did in supporting Republican-Conservative Harry Wilson for New York State Comptroller against the victorious Democratic incumbent, Tom DiNapoli.

Can you name names?
Certainly. Among the group’s eight-person board is hedge-fund manager John Petry of Gotham Capital, who with Eva Moskowitz co-founded the Harlem Success Academy Charter School. The board also includes Tony Davis of Anchorage Capital, the board chair of Brooklyn’s Achievement First East New York school; Charles Ledley of Highfields Capital Management; and Tilson, chief of T2 Partners and Tilson Funds and vice chairman of New York’s KIPP Academy Charter Schools. Tilson alone gave $50,000 to the New York branch of DFER in the first half of 2010.

Of DFER’s seven-person advisory board, five manage hedge funds: David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital, LLC; Joel Greenblatt, founder and managing partner of Gotham Capital and past protégé of fallen junk-bond icon Michael Milliken; Vincent Mai, who chairs AEA Investors, LP; Michael Novogratz, president of Fortress Investment Group; and Rafael Mayer, the Khronos LLC managing partner and KIPP AMP charter school director.

Orbiting the group is billionaire “venture philanthropist” and charter school funder Eli Broad, whose foundation gave upwards of $500,000 to plug advocacy related to the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” and another charter-touting film, “The Lottery.” Though not himself a DFER board member, Broad is a major funder of Education Reform Now, DFER’s nonprofit sister organization, also headed by Joe Williams.

Meanwhile, Andrew Rotherman, recently retired DFER director and EduWonk blogger, is co-founder of and a partner in for-profit Bellwether Education, described as “offering specialized professional services and thoughtful leadership to the entrepreneurial education reform field.” Rotherman sits on the Broad Prize Review Board, while DFER board member Sara Mead is a senior associate partner at his Bellwether Education and sits on the Washington, D.C., Public Charter School Board.

Birds of a feather.

Why the preponderance of hedge-funders?
Unlike bankers, hedge-funders operate in an area with little regulation and use “incentive structures” (bonuses, in English) that dictate investment risk-taking. Unlike New York’s traditional 400 wealthiest, these new rich aren’t satisfied with seeing their names emblazoned on museums and other cultural edifices. They mix narcissism with profit. They want something that churns money and strokes egos, too.

They’re what Diane Ravitch calls “the billionaire boys club.” Their agenda: choice, competition and privatization, which leads Ravitch to ask why the surprise when a crop of corporate America’s super-rich bridle at government regulation, favor private-sector solutions to societywide problems and oppose unions after thriving in a union-free environment.

Interviewed by The New York Times’ business writer Joe Nocera [Nov. 12], DFER’s Whitney Tilson, one of the grandest of hedge-fund grandees, called charters “the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives… Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”

What do these folks know about education?
With the exception of Williams, who’s the hired help: nothing! Understand that DFER’s endgame has little to do with learning and everything to do with marginalizing public-sector unionized workers and bringing down the cost of taxes for social programs. It’s about creating new business and investment opportunities in areas that are still publicly run and serving as a pre-emptive strike against any hope for private-sector union renewal. Where better to start than with attacking teacher unions, one of the few labor strongholds in this country?

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