DFER Highlights: 2021 in Review


December 22, 2021

Strengthened Relationships with New Administration

Both DFER and ERN were pleased by the confirmation of US Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona, and we have been proud to work with him—both in his previous role as Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education through our Connecticut chapter and post-appointment in his current office—to ensure equitable access to education and resources for all students.

Most notably, we successfully advocated to maintain statewide, annual assessments, require states to use recovery funds—which would specifically come from the $122 billion allotted to pandemic-recovery aid—to properly address learning gaps, and issue guidance prioritizing high-impact tutoring (HIT) as a proven intervention that falls within the recovery statute’s set-aside for “evidence-based” interventions. (Read more about these victories below!)

Worked to Shape the Conversation on Education in the Midterms

In advance of next year’s critical state and federal elections, and following the upset victory of Glenn Youngkin over candidate Terry McAuliffe in the gubernatorial race in Virginia this fall, we conducted polling—in partnership with Murmuration—to better understand voters’ motivations. Next year DFER will be active in state elections in Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, and Washington, DC, working to protect federal champions including Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT). DFER states across the country will face critical elections at the gubernatorial and state legislative level that will determine the balance of power in their statehouses. It is crucial that we understand the role education might play in the upcoming midterm elections next year.

Results showed education was one of the primary issues voters considered when casting their ballot, largely due to parent frustrations and a desire to be heard. Republicans were able to turn a Democratic advantage into a Republican strength by capitalizing on this.

Top takeaways include:

  • 70% of voters who ranked education as a top issue (21% overall) voted for Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, underscoring a concerning trend for Democrats who have ceded ground to Republicans on the issue.
  • Education issues were especially salient with Republicans, as well as voters who did not turn out in 2017, indicating the issue drove turnout for Youngkin.
  • Nearly two thirds of voters who ranked education as their top issue were Republican, and education ranked highest for voters who did not vote in 2017 (Youngkin won this group 57% to 40%).
  • 66% of all voters across demographics found Youngkin’s stated support to “invest more in schools, raise teacher pay, and demand better performance from our schools” convincing—including 28% of Biden voters.
  • 96% of Republicans noted that protecting parental involvement was an especially resonant message against incumbent Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. 28% of Biden voters noted concerns over prolonged school closures based on unions, not science, as the most resonant argument against McAuliffe.
  • 28% of Biden voters—and 46% of voters who are parents—noted concerns over prolonged school closures based on unions, not science, as the most resonant argument against McAuliffe.

You can view the full results from the poll here.

The polling and its resultant conversation stirred up media attention—an outcome we hope will draw the attention of candidates and electeds.

Moved the Needle in Elections

This year, we focused on elections—and election victories—in our states.

DFER Colorado supported Dr. Anne Keke who won her election to the Aurora Public School Board by a large margin, earning the most votes of all candidates, despite not being endorsed by the local association.

In Louisiana, we saw the four DFER champions win runoff races for Orleans Parish School Board, maintaining a reform-majority Board. DFER was also instrumental in supporting Rep. Gary Carter—the current Louisiana State Representative for District 102 and a staunch education champion—in the Louisiana Senate District 7 race.

DFER Massachusetts had several reform candidates win their elections, including DFER-supported Brian Worrell for Boston City Council, reformer Paul Toner for Cambridge City Council, DFER-endorsed Councilor Patty Nolan, and DFER-supported Councilor Brian DePena, who won the Lawrence mayoral race in a major defense of key reforms.

In New York, we congratulated Mayor-Elect Eric Adams on the success of his run in New York City. We look forward to working with Mayor Adams and Chancellor David Banks to prioritize educational equity and a relentless commitment to results for the city’s more than 1.1 million public school students.

Advocated for Statewide, Summative Assessments

In coalition with various partnerships—we worked to ensure the maintenance of statewide, summative assessments in Spring 2021, and build support for the Spring 2022 administration of assessments.

DFER affiliate ERN applauded Sec. Cardona for standing firm on the administration of annual statewide, summative assessments, despite pressure from opponents. ERN’s K-12 policy team detailed the importance of not using local tests in lieu of statewide, summative assessments—as doing so would undermine clear parameters laid out in ESSA that state standards and assessments must be the same, statewide, for all students in order to legally adhere to legislative decree and to fairly collect accurate data.

This summer, to lay groundwork that would help audiences better understand what exactly assessments are—and what they are not— our affiliate ERN’s K-12 policy team put together a series of webinars called “Assessment Bootcamp.” Built around the idea of informing and engaging, each webinar in the series featured expert panelists and hosted an interactive Q&A session with the audience.

You can read a full wrap up of the “Assessment Bootcamp” series and learn more about key findings from the webinars here.

Assessments were also a focal area for our states this year. In the spring, DFER affiliate ERN Colorado, working alongside Governor Polis, played a significant role in defending assessment administration, ensuring HB21-1125 to pause assessments for 2021 was replaced by HB21-1161, which would reduce the testing battery.

Pushed for COVID Relief Funding that Incorporated DFER Priorities

In the spring, following the passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), Shavar released a statement which marked the historic occasion and congratulated Congress on making a decision that will provide billions of dollars in vital funding to support school reopening, distance learning, and academic and social-emotional supports to help our children persist through these deeply challenging times.

To ensure that money from ARP is directly used for these purposes:

  • DFER affiliate ERN hosted “Pandemic Pods for All: Utilizing COVID Relief Funds for High-Impact Tutoring (HIT),” a webinar featuring an expert panel that discussed exactly how funds from ARPA can be used to implement HIT programs that would combat learning loss and accelerate student learning;
  • DFER affiliate ERN worked alongside other advocate organizations to persuade Congress to statutorily require states to set aside at least $28 billion (of the $122 billion in total education recovery aid) for “evidence-based” interventions to address learning loss;
  • DFER affiliate ERN urged the federal Education Department to require states to use recovery funds—which would specifically come from the $122 billion allotted to pandemic-recovery aid—to properly address learning gaps;
  • DFER affiliate ERN helped persuade the federal Education Department to issue guidance prioritizing high-impact tutoring (HIT) as a proven intervention that falls within the recovery statute’s set-aside for “evidence-based” interventions;
  • DFER affiliate ERN worked with state leaders in Colorado, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia to provide HIT to over 1 million students across these three states. The Colorado bill (HB-1234) serves as a model for states nationally, and was shaped significantly by our national and Colorado team; and
  • Our DFER affiliate ERN Connecticut team spearheaded landmark legislation that now requires districts to adopt the Science of Reading for literacy instruction, funded by ARP.

Urged the Abolition of Legacy Admissions

In partnership with crucial collaborators, this year we were able to substantially progress our commitment to ending the unfair legacy admissions at colleges and universities, which gives priority admissions to applicants who are children or grandchildren of University alumni.

This spring in Colorado, we saw a massive victory in the fight against legacy admissions when, thanks to tireless efforts of DFER Colorado Policy Director Prateek Dutta who introduced the bill idea to state lawmakers, Governor Jared Polis signed HB 21-1173 into law. Colorado is the first state to ban legacy admissions at public colleges and universities.

Polling conducted by DFER partner Education Reform Now Advocacy showed that 67% of respondents oppose the legacy preference (13% have no opinion), indicating that it’s high time colleges do away with the practice and take actionable steps toward a meaningful commitment to diversity and socioeconomic mobility.

Building upon this polling and DFER Colorado’s success, DFER affiliate ERN joined forces with the education advocacy group Ed Mobilizer to launch #LeaveYourLegacy—a virtual campaign that calls on college students and alumni to pledge to withhold donations until their schools end the discriminatory practice of applying a legacy preference in university admissions—a privilege of birth worth the equivalent of a 160-point boost on the SAT that disproportionately benefits white and wealthy students.

You can read more on legacy admissions and our ongoing work to end them here.

Called out Inequities in Virginia’s Higher Ed System

In the spring, DFER affiliate ERN’s Higher Ed team released an issue brief, “De Facto Segregation in Virginia’s Higher Ed System” that critiqued the state of Virginia’s higher education system. Their work found that, of the 15 worst public colleges and universities in America on working class and low-income student enrollment, one third are located in Virginia. The brief also noted that while 34% of Virginia 18-24-year-olds are Black or Hispanic, only three of Virginia’s 15 public four-year institutions of higher education enroll Black and Hispanic students at anywhere near a comparable rate—two of which are HBCUs.

Following the launch of the first report, ERN’s higher ed team also published deep dives on Washington and Lee Universitythe University of RichmondJames Madison University, and Christopher Newport University, calling out their lack of a meaningful commitment to diversity and their hypocrisy of inaction.

The team released a follow up with a second report that took a close look at the financial inequities in Virginia’s higher ed system. Additional publications include:

Launched Philos Conversations

While we couldn’t meet in person this year, we kicked off our virtual webinar series Philos Conversations, engaging local and national leaders on pressing issues impacting education reform.

As our series continues, make sure to take a moment to catch up on our previous Philos Conversations:

  • Part 1: The Politics of School Reopening with Former Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools Dr. Janice Jackson and DFER affiliate ERN’s National President Shavar Jeffries;
  • Part 2: Fighting Voter Suppression with Voto Latino’s founding president María Teresa Kumar, More Than A Vote’s Vice President of Election & Advocacy Jonae Wartel, Cofounder of Black Voters Matter LaTosha Brown, and DFER affiliate ERN’s National President Shavar Jeffries;
  • Part 3: Reforming School Discipline with U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and DFER affiliate ERN’s National President Shavar Jeffries; and cohosted by DFER affiliate ERN Connecticut; and
  • Part 4: Education and the Midterms with National Parents Union’s Founding President Keri Rodrigues, Partner at Anzalone Liszt Grove Research Brian Styker, DFER National President Shavar Jeffries, alongside moderator Lauren Camera, education news writer at U.S. News and World Report.

Expanded Leaders of Color Program

Leaders of Color identifies, trains, and supports community-based Black and Latino civic leaders, empowering them with the tools and resources to advance educational equity and the broader cause of racial justice. Since the program’s launch in 2018, the program has seen:

  • 116 community leaders graduate.
  • 72% of graduates serve in community leadership positions like working on nonprofit boards; and
  • 30% of graduates campaign for political office.

In 2022, the Leaders of Color program is expanding its reach and impact. It will continue to serve its current sites: Memphis, New York, and New Orleans, while expanding to serve the entire state of Louisiana, and to Washington, D.C. The goal? Train 400 Fellows across the U.S. by 2023 to achieve increased education and wealth equity in Black and Latino communities.

Defended Public Charter Schools Program

Along with coalition partners, DFER affiliate ERN mobilized supporters in the Senate—including several on the key committees—and persuaded the Biden Administration to seek $440 million in funding for charter schools, building on our work of well over a year to persuade the Biden team to chart a moderate course, despite aggressive efforts by charter opponents to eliminate federal charter-school funding.

We also released the third edition of our “Democratic Guide to Public Charter Schools“—an informative and in-depth report that gives the history of public charter schools in an effort to better inform audiences on the nuances of these institutions.

Our Colorado team delivered wins for the charter sector through the budgeting process that included $2M in mill levy equalization to Charter School Institute (CSI) schools and killed legislation that sought to roll back charter authorizing and appeals.

In DC, DFER affiliate ERN had several big public charter wins included in the fiscal year 2022 budget and financial plan, with critical investments that will see a fully-funded expansion of the school-based mental-health program to all traditional and public charter schools, and an increase in the public charter facilities allowance to 3.1% in FY 2024 and beyond so schools can have safe, well-maintained schools and enough space to learn.

Our Washington State Director Shirline Wilson published a piece in The Seattle Times which called on the importance of public charter schools as a necessary means of ensuring equitable education for Black students—who have historically been underserved and overlooked by traditional public school systems.