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.”
By investing in their own “student movement” at the university level, the SFER funders have distracted from the voices of students and teachers actually affected by the neoliberal push to standardize and privatize education. While students from Philadelphia and Newark public schools have recently organized massive walkouts in protest of draconian budget cuts, SFER’s rallies in favor of charter schools and high stakes testing pose as a legitimate alternative student movement, despite usually featuring an unpresentative cluster of elite university students.
Fortunately, SFER members themselves are beginning to wake up to the motives of the national branch, particularly in Chicago, where the devastating impact of Rahm Emanuel’s school closings are impossible to ignore. Last month, the University of Chicago and DePaul University chapters made the decision to disaffiliate from SFER’s national apparatus, citing their inability to foster fair discussion while being handicapped by the national organization’s dogmatism.
In DePaul’s disaffiliation letter to SFER national, the group voiced its dissatisfaction with the national organization’s consistently one-sided, anti-teacher narrative, in spite of the chapter’s own attempts to bring in voices from the community. Recalling a similar experience, University of Chicago chapter leader Collins said, “It was disappointing to see a lack of engagement from national on these major issues. The school closings were a huge problem to comprehend and this past quarter we were very surprised by the lack of engagement on it by national.”
Hinting at the powers behind the throne in its gently worded letter, the DePaul chapter explained that, contrary to SFER’s deep ties with union-busting groups like Teach For America and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, “true change in education will come in the form of grass-root organizing- involving students, parents, and communities alike.”
Likewise, the University of Chicago chapter released a letter of disaffiliation that stressed the need for less scripted discussion and a truly grassroots movement that actually listened to the voices of students.
Hannah Nguyen, a USC sophomore, recalls entering college, eager to become a teacher: “I thought SFER would be the perfect group, but it seemed that they didn’t actually seek to engage with and elevate students—the ones actually experiencing this everyday reality.” Nguyen soon quit the group, after finding that SFER preferred a “top-down” approach, as her chapter president put it, rather than actively organizing with community members. “The president referred to students as ‘babies’, which I found condescending,” she said. “SFER speaks for students, instead of letting them speak for themselves.”
Consequently, new groups are springing up like Students United for Public Education, with which Nguyen is now affiliated, and which has spread to ten campuses across in the country in conscious opposition to SFER. We knew something was up about SFER, they consistently failed to show both sides of the debate,” said SUPE cofounder, Stephanie Rivera. “Some University of Wisconsin students and I were angry about the misleading agenda they were promoting. So we decided why not create an organization that solely exists to defend public education?”