If you’re a Richmond resident and a registered voter, chances are a Students for Education Reform Action Network (SFER AN) canvasser knocked on your door in the months leading up to the Nov. 8 elections. The group of high school and college students reached more than 30,000 residences in the city campaigning for two school board candidates, Tom Panas and Miriam Stephanie Sequeira.
SFER AN and its parent organization, Students for Education Reform (SFER), present themselves as student-run, grassroots groups that advocate for change and improvement in local public education systems. But leaders in both organizations have charter school connections that appear to influence the groups’ activities, from educating eligible voters to endorsing candidates.
In fact, this election cycle, SFER AN-endorsed candidate Panas won a seat on the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Board of Education, adding a third charter-linked board member to the five-seat board—thereby giving charter-supported members a majority on the board.
SFER and SFER AN executive director Alexis Morin said the student canvassers who campaigned for Panas and Sequeira “[wore] through their shoes…they are incredibly hardworking.”
Morin, who also cofounded SFER, said she founded the organization after becoming interested in disparities in the quality of public education while she was a student at Princeton.
“I knew that the quality of education that my friends and I received was not equal,” Morin said. “It seemed to me that the quality of our schools ha[s] so much bearing on whether a young person can follow their dreams.”
Morin started SFER as a Princeton student group in 2009, to raise awareness about inequality in public education and empower people to make a difference, she said.
In its first year, the group hosted movie screenings and study breaks, and student members visited high-performing charter schools in underserved areas in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.—including schools that were part of the Uncommon Schools and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) public charter school networks.
The organization’s membership grew quickly, and in 2011, Morin and cofounder Catharine Bellinger, a fellow Princeton student, launched SFER as a nonprofit organization. In 2013, the two founded SFER AN, the 501(c)(4) political arm of SFER.
“We definitely recognized that your ability to change a policy is affected by the leaders in charge of the system,” said Morin. The 501(c)(4) organization allowed SFER’s work to expand into the realm of politics and campaigns through SFER AN.
Morin said both organizations adhere to a common set of principles, including setting high standards for students and providing support to meet those standards; supporting quality teachers; creating schools that serve the needs of every student; ensuring justice in schools; and providing access to a variety of school choices for parents and students.
But SFER’s main objective, said Morin, is “to identify and train student leaders to be effective community organizers who can then go and fight for educational justice in their own communities.”
In the months leading up to this year’s election, SFER AN operated five local chapters in four states: California, Colorado, Minnesota and North Carolina.
Many of the students involved in Richmond’s SFER AN chapter and chapters at nearby colleges, including UC Berkeley and UC Davis, grew up in or near Richmond and graduated from WCCUSD traditional public schools and public charter schools.
This fall, SFER “fellows,” as they are called, spent several hours each evening canvassing in Richmond and delivering leaflets for the Panas and Sequeira campaigns. SFER AN considers students’ participation a “fellowship,” and students in the fellowship, which begins over summer, received stipends ranging from $3,760 to $4,680, depending on the hours they worked.
Providing a stipend is necessary, Morin said, because some students must choose between a job and joining SFER AN.
Panas and Sequeira were the only two candidates to receive support from charter-linked organizations in the seven-candidate school board race. Both received backing from the local Education Matters PAC and the Parent Teacher Alliance Sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee. With the combined support from SFER AN, Education Matters and the PTA, the Panas and Sequeira campaigns raised dramatically more in funding than all other candidates in the race combined.
Richmond SFER AN fellows said the candidates’ views on charter schools had nothing to do with their decision to endorse Panas and Sequeira.
“They showed they did have the experience and they did have plans,” said Richmond High School graduate and current San Francisco State University first-year student Aracely Gomez.
“Everyone felt really strong, we felt really proud of our endorsements,” Gomez said.
Before endorsing Panas and Sequeira, the SFER AN fellows sent questionnaires to all of the candidates and invited them to be interviewed for endorsement consideration. The fellows came up with questions covering a wide range of issues facing WCCUSD—including teacher retention, parent involvement, community engagement, financing and support for undocumented students, said SFER AN fellow Jillian Ortiz, a UC Berkeley senior and WCCUSD graduate.
The SFER AN students interviewed five of the seven board of education candidates and evaluated each candidates’ responses according to SFER principles. While the decision was ultimately the students’, a member of the SFER team was present to talk with the students and answer their questions during the process, Morin said.
The group chose Panas and Sequeira because they “aligned with children and aligned with progressive ideas that would have helped us when we were in school,” said Ortiz.
“I believe in quality education for children and parent choice,” she said. “I really don’t think it should be a charter or traditional public school issue.”
But Panas and Sequeira were not the only charter-linked candidates SFER AN has backed in WCCUSD—or beyond.
In 2014, the group endorsed WCCUSD Board of Education candidates Elizabeth Block and Valerie Cuevas and Oakland Unified School District Board of Education candidate Renato Almanzor.
Like Panas and Sequeira, Block and Cuevas received support in independent expenditures from Education Matters and CCSA in 2014, according to information filed with the California Secretary of State. Education Matters spent more than $170,000 on the two campaigns, and the CCSA spent around $200,000 in support of Block and Cuevas.
SFER AN contributed $4,333.26 in support of each campaign that year; it also contributed $13,343.67 to the Almanzor campaign. The Almanzor campaign also received support from Families and Educators for Public Education, Sponsored by Great Oakland Public Schools, a charter-linked political action committee (PAC) that reported $10,000 in support from the CCSA in 2014, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Oakland City Clerk.
In 2015, SFER AN contributed $65,899.26 to the Ref Rodriguez campaign for a Los Angeles County Unified School District Board of Education seat. Rodriguez is the co-founder of the Partners to Uplift Communities, a network of 16 charter schools located in Northeast Lost Angeles, the Northeast San Fernando Valley and Rochester, NY.
SFER AN has also received support from charter-linked organizations. This election cycle, SFER AN reported nearly $6,000 in non-monetary support from the Parent Teacher Alliance, a PAC associated with the CCSA. In 2014, SFER AN’s only reported funding came from two individuals, Adam Cioth and Stuart Cobert, according to forms filed with the California Secretary of State’s Office.
Cioth—a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, SFER board member and former board chair of Leadership Public Schools, a network of three public charter schools located in Hayward, Oakland and Richmond—contributed $18,475.64 to SFER AN that year.
Cobert, a New York-based corporate lawyer and former deputy general counsel for Unilever, contributed $5,000 to the organization.
Both Cioth and Cobert serve on the SFER and SFER AN boards of directors.
“I honestly think they operate on two levels,” said Daniel Katz, an assistant professor of educational studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ who has criticized SFER and its “grassroots” image for its connection to wealthy financial interests.
“One is looking for students who have sincere commitment to education,” he said. “The other part is operating with their central office’s agenda.”
Cioth is not the only SFER board member with connections to charter school organizations. Seven of the organization’s 10 board members—including Justin Cohen, April Chou, Nancy Poon Lue, Tenicka Boyd, Amy Hertel Buckley and John Petry—have links to charter schools.
Cohen served as the academic committee chair for Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. for five years.
Chou is currently the chief growth and operating officer of the Bay Area regional branch of KIPP Public Charter Schools, a charter school network with 200 schools across the country.
Lue previously served on the board of governors for the Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., according to the school’s 2010-2011 annual report filed with the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
Boyd is on the board of directors of Bronx Prep Middle School, a school in the Democracy Prep charter school network, which includes 19 schools in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., according to the school’s website.
Buckley is a partner at Education Cities, which works to create “great public schools” by supporting education organizations, such as Great Oakland Public Schools.
And, in addition to founding the hedge fund Sessa Capital, Petry co-founded Democrats for Education Reform and was a founding member of the board of trustees for Success Academy Harlem 1 and Success Academy Harlem 4, two New York City-based charter schools.
The SFER board does reflect experience in traditional public schools, as well: board member Chris Stewart previously served on the Minneapolis School Board, Cohen worked in the District of Columbia Public Schools system as the senior advisor to the chancellor and director of the office of portfolio management, and both Boyd and Lue previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education.
SFER AN’s board has a similar makeup. Boyd, Stewart and Cioth and Petry, along with Meg Ansara, all sit on the SFER AN Board of Directors.
Morin said she believes so many of the SFER and SFER AN board members have been involved with public charter schools due to their commitment to providing quality education to underserved students.
Leigh Dingerson, a consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said some people are attracted to public charter schools because of the “small, locally controlled” environment they offer.
“A lot of people figured charter schools would be a way to experiment and innovate,” Dingerson.
However, Dingerson said others are interested in charter schools because they offer an opportunity to “open up public education to the private sector.”
“There are some people who are very dogmatic about one or the other,” Morin said of the debate about the merits of traditional versus public charter schools. “We’ve made a very deliberate decision to say what we are about are really excellent schools that are resetting expectations on what public schooling can deliver to families that have been traditionally underserved.”
SFER’s board is actively involved in the organization. Morin said board members meet with SFER staff and students, spread the message of SFER and weigh in on critical decisions, but that “their ultimate purpose is to make sure the nonprofit is advancing its mission.”
Although Morin said SFER supports “really excellent schools,” whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, she said SFER also supports proving students and families with “access to as many high-quality schools as we can make available,” which includes charter schools.
Students from high-income families often have many educational options, including private schools, but this is not always available to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“No student or family should ever be trapped in a school that doesn’t work for them,” said Morin.
Dingerson said that the expansion of public charter schools within a district can actually be detrimental to traditional public schools and the students enrolled in them.
“What we’re actually seeing is competition from charter schools is causing financial instability in public schools,” she said.
That’s because funding follows students as they transfer out of traditional public schools and into public charter schools. And although the student population may decrease at a traditional public school, that doesn’t necessarily mean its budgetary needs will also decrease proportionally, Dingerson said.
“It doesn’t make their light bill go down, it doesn’t make their staffing go down,” she said.
Morin said a fundamental premise of SFER is that increasing the number of “quality schools” available in a public school district will lead to student success by offering a diverse set of options for a wide range of student needs.
Whether that will prove true in WCCUSD, which has struggled to raise student academic performance, remains to be seen.
According to the California Department of Education, in 2015 fewer than 50 percent of WCCUSD graduating seniors met the course requirements necessary to attend a University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) school. At De Anza High School, this number was 38.4 percent, at Kennedy high school it was 27.9 percent and Richmond High School recorded 42 percent. However, ninety percent of the Leadership Public Schools graduating class that year met the UC and CSU course requirements.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, WCCUSD schools’ average SAT and ACT scores were lower than the reported county and state averages. Leadership Public Schools’ average SAT scores exceeded the district average in math, but overall scores still fell below the county and state averages. The school’s ACT average scores were also below the district average.
Public charter schools do not perform better than their traditional public school counterparts on average across the country, said Dingerson.
She said evidence shows that while “some charter schools do a great job,” the majority are equivalent to traditional public schools and a “significant” number perform much worse than traditional public schools.
“There is no indication that the charter model in and of itself is better than a traditional school model,” Dingerson said.