Thousands of public school teachers march on streets surrounding the Chicago Public Schools district headquarters on the first day of strike action over teachers' contracts on Monday, September 10, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
This post was corrected on August 5 at 11:48 to delete the mistaken accusation that SFER received money from SUPER Pacs
In the midst of the Chicago school closings, New York City’s new high-stakes testing teacher evaluation method, and the accelerating privatization of the American education system, it often seems that the corporate throttle on education reform is unshakeable.
One glimmer of hope for public education comes from an unlikely source—Students For Education Reform. “SFER,” a student group I have criticized in the past for its hedge fund backing and deceptive agenda, is undergoing a rebellion from members within, a hopeful indication that the corporate narrative on education may finally be starting to unravel.
The college student club has won national attention over the last three years for its promotion of the charter school movement and other fashionable privatizing initiatives.
“I came into my first year pretty interested in education. SFER was growing pretty rapidly,” said Matthew Collins, founder of the University of Chicago SFER chapter. “I caught wind of it in Time’s top twelve activists list. I was hoping to start some organization on campus, and there were no other education policy groups.”
Behind the altruistic intentions of student organizers like Collins are millions of dollars from anti-union corporate groups like ALEC and the Walton Family Foundation, who profit from the PR benefits of a seemingly grassroots student movement backing state attempts to “hold teachers accountable” and “put students first.” While the national organization strives hard to maintain the façade of an open discussion group, students who seek to explore alternative perspectives on the education reform debate tell of being systematically shut off and misled, forced to take directives from a national organization flooded with corporate donations.
During last year’s Chicago Teachers’ strike, for instance, DePaul University SFER members wanted to hear a voice other than SFER’s handpicked spokesperson from the mayor’s office. After failing to reach out to the CTU, SFER later abruptly “replaced” the Illinois Program director who had suggested it would be a good idea to hear from a teacher. Furthermore, despite promises of chapter autonomy, DePaul members consistently felt that SFER’s approach was blatently one-sided, unconditionally supporting the “school turnarounds and the power of the mayor.”