Shaver Jeffries and educational reform
"I think it's an inspired choice. I think he is going to be a terrific leader for an organization that has its work cut out for it," said former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who met Jeffries at a DFER event just a few weeks ago. Landrieu is an advisor to Education Reform Now, a DFER-affiliated advocacy group.
In an interview with The Seventy Four last week at his Roseland law office, Jeffries said his career in New Jersey's largest city has given him a keen understanding of both the potential of school choice, charter schools and funding equity and the missteps education reformers often make around political organizing and messaging as they seek to transform public education.
"I was very excited about the opportunity because I believe this is the civil rights issue of our time," he said while sitting at his desk in a checkered blue shirt. "I believe passionately that we have to build on what's worked in the traditional system and change the things that have not worked."
Jeffries' climb from an impoverished and tragic childhood to the halls of the Ivy League are the stuff from which education-reform success stories are made. Born to a 19-year-old single mother in 1975 in Newark, he shuffled among various relatives in the New Jersey area every few years. By age 9, Jeffries' mom moved them across the country to North Hollywood, California.
She became involved with a man who grew increasingly violent, smacking and hurling her across the room when he spotted unfamiliar numbers on her phone bill; kicking in the door to their apartment and dragging his mother into the street, stopping only after she was able to flag a passerby.
Shavar's mother, Donna Johnson, would get restraining orders and eventually moved the family to a shelter and later to another neighborhood. But on Nov. 25, 1985, the estranged-husband went to her job and shot Johnson to death with a sawed-off shotgun. Police officers looking for him would later bust into Shavar's new home and relay the horrific news.
"It was really sad for me," he said, remembering how he felt after the move and then after the tragedy. "Really excited -- it's me and my mom now, I can finally be with my mom and kinda begin the rest of my life. But not even a month or two later..."
Jeffries moved back to Newark, where he lived with his grandmother who put him in a summer camp at the local Boys and Girls Club. There a school counselor helped get him a scholarship to Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey.
The scholarship marked a new chapter in his life. At Seton Hall, Jeffries said, he was encouraged and groomed to attend a competitive college. Though no one in his family had graduated from college, Jeffries said the school's environment of challenge and expectation ensured his path to higher education.
"It truly changed my life," he said. "I was prepared to go to competitive universities. No one in my family graduated from college. College wasn't anything on my mind because that wasn't something that I saw."
But while Jeffries began thinking about college, his friends in Newark "weren't talking about the same things I was talking about."
"At that young age, I knew something wasn't right", he said. "Something wasn't right about what's going on in our society and what's happening in our schools."
Jeffries would go on to earn his bachelor's degree from Duke University and his law degree from Columbia Law School. While there he worked as a summer associate for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He continued civil rights work as an associate with Washington, D.C.-based Wilmer Cutler & Pickering where he helped defend the University of Michigan law school against a challenge to its affirmative action policies.
After he moved back to New Jersey, he worked with the Education Law Center to successfully challenge Newark Public Schools' implementation of individualized education plans for special needs students. The district was improperly withholding services.
Later, he was a law professor at Seton Hall Law School, where he brought an action against the state's funding formula for public charter schools, prompting New Jersey's decision to allow urban charter schools access to the same supplemental money given to nearby public schools.
"I had been doing education reform work for really my whole career," said Jeffries, who is married and whose two children attend a Newark charter school. "Even before there was something called education reform, I was doing it."
In 2002, he worked with current charter school network leader Ryan Hill and became the founding board president of TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark. A 2012 Stanford studyconcluded that charter school kids in Newark gained an additional seven-and-a-half months in reading instruction and nine months in math over their public school peers.
Jeffries said he saw Newark as a textbook example of how more money doesn't necessarily solve poor performance. New Jersey civil rights activists in the 1990s had successfully fought in court to force the state Education Department to give more money to urban school districts beyond what property taxes provided.
"Sure poverty is a challenge….Sure we'll always fight to get more funding and resources for our kids but when those kids go through those doors you need to be ready," he said. "These kids can learn now is my view. I was one of them."
"We got all this money but then the results aren't moving," Jeffries said of the Newark's public school system. "While those results aren't moving, we have Team Academy which, year after year, is growing and we're kicking butt."
Q: Are you talking about cultivating parents as a political force?
A: Newark is a reminder to me of how much parents love their children, how beautiful the parents are, how smart they are, how intelligent they are and how they will go to the end of the Earth for their babies. That's my North Star. If you just spend the time to persuade them, and persuade communities that these ideas will actually change the lives of their child, they will fight anybody in order to protect that. So, number one, always remember the unbelievable talent and genius and agency and capacity in local communities and tap into that. That's an amazing resource of ideas and intellectual capacity we can leverage to do great things for kids. And second, that becomes your organizing base to sustain these changes politically when there's the inevitable backlash from those whose jobs and economic interests are put at risk by the changes.
Q: Is there a role for teachers unions?
A: Unions as a general matter have done a lot of great work over a long period of time — increasing wages for workers, increasing job conditions for workers, increasing benefits for workers. My grandmother was a strong union member, she raised me. The idea that workers ought to have some ability to organize is something that we support. But there are many things that the teachers union does that are problematic, not only for kids but for teachers, too. For example, quality blindness — it's not good for kids, not good for teachers. As in any organization, there is a variance among the performance of people in that organization. We should honor the amazing, hard work of those teachers who have change the lives of kids. And we should support those in the middle who need additional support, professional development to get them to a better place. And those who consistently can't get the job done, to me there shouldn't be all this drama. If you consistently can't get the job done, go find something else to do. I don't have a conceptual issue with unions. But it is true that in many states, in many jurisdictions, the teachers union is very focused on protecting the jobs of their members. At some level, that's the core, irreducible purpose, right? That's really the fundamental point of a union, to protect wages and to protect jobs. … I want to protect the job, too, as long as you're educating the child.
Q: What changes do you plan for DFER?
A: We have to be bigger and stronger and deeper because the forces that are glued to the status quo are large and they have a lot of resources behind them. This is the long term; this isn't a microwave kind of thing. If we want to change history for our kids in a sustainable way, we got to be able to match that. As much as I hear these stories of these billionaires who are allegedly trying to take over public education, their resources are a drop in the bucket compared to what we see to preserve the way things have always been.
Jeffries is a lawyer who recently lost the election to become Newark's mayor, despite DFER's support. Jeffries grew up as a fifth-generation Newarker. After his mother was murdered, his grandmother took him in. He attended public schools in that low-income city, then earned a scholarship to a private preparatory school.
He went on to attend Duke University and ultimately Columbia Law School, a narrative that plays into the organization's credo that education can be an escape route from extraordinarily difficult life circumstances. He served as president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and is a founding board member of TEAM schools, a charter school chain associated with KIPP schools, in New Jersey.
…In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Democrats for Education Reform emerged as an influential counter to teachers unions.
That year's Democratic National Convention included a DFER seminar that received little publicity at the time, but has since been recognized as the start of a shift in how the party handles education. The idea was to move policymaking from the hands of teachers unions and let "education reform" -- the group's term for a more technocratic way of thinking around schools -- lead the way.
"Ten years ago when I talked about school choice, I was literally tarred and feathered," Cory Booker, who was then the mayor of Newark, said, according to Dana Goldstein's recounting in the American Prospect. "I was literally brought into a broom closet by a union and told I would never win office if I kept talking about charters."
Now, five years later, DFER has seen parts of its agenda put into action, along with the backlash that followed. President Obama has tried his best to enact many of the group's preferred policies that run counter to unions' desires, including teacher evaluations that take test scores into account and the support of charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run.
… Jeffries clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and for Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals before serving as an associate for Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. There, he fought for the rights of black farmers to receive loans. In 2001, he became general counsel at Gibbons P.C., a New Jersey law firm, and in 2014, he became a partner at Lowenstein Sandler, a national firm.
In May 2014, Jeffries lost Newark's election to Ras Baraka, a critic of Booker -- and particularly his education policies. Baraka won with the support of unions, which ran ads such as: "They're coming. From Wall Street. From Trenton. To sell us Shavar Jeffries."
The mayoral run, Bradford said, gave Jeffries the scars necessary to steer DFER back to political influence and relevance in 2015. "If there's one person who knows how education reform ... [messes] things up in an election, it's him," Bradford said.
Jeffries sat down to talk with Education Matters on Thursday morning. We'll have more soon, but here is Jeffries' take on the problems with education reform:
"We're working to dramatically change systems that have stultified over many decades," Jeffries said. "We need to do a better job of getting our message out."
For example: "If communities hear that charters are some Trojan horse and hedge funds are going to make money off the backs of our kids, people are going to distrust that," he said. "The schools exist to educate babies, not to make money."
We asked him whether the reform movement's problems run deeper than messaging, given the level of distrust. This is what he said:
"The reform movement is new, and a lot of its leadership is new. Now, I'm not new. I've been there my whole life. I've worked in Newark.
"[Former Newark superintendent] Cami Anderson is new, some of the charter operators are new and it takes time to build relationships. If you're new and you're coming in closing schools, and if you're coming in disrupting things that people had gotten used to, they don't know who you are. And [if] you're not spending sufficient time to explain to them what it is you're doing and why it's good, then of course there's going to be distrust. They don't know you.
"They're doing big things, and it's not clear to them how it will benefit their children.
"It's also affecting constituencies they do trust. As charters have grown, there's been increasing layoffs in the traditional public schools. Parents and communities have relationships with teachers. They've been in the community. They're communicating a message of: We have these outsiders coming in; they're taking jobs."
As Jeffries takes the helm at DFER, he says he is serious about engaging the communities the organization is trying to help.
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