by Liza Featherstone
On Hakeem Jeffries
“Report Card” would like to share its neighbors’ love for Jeffries, an Assemblyman now running for the House of Representatives, who has been called the “Barack of Brooklyn.” (Jeffries challenged a longtime incumbent, Ed Towns, who recently dropped out of the race. City Councilman Charles Barron, who represents East New York, is also running.) Jeffries is a champion on housing issues—a big deal in a city so thoroughly whipped by real estate interests—passing legislation to turn empty luxury apartments in Brooklyn into affordable housing, fighting foreclosures, and pushing to strengthen rent regulation. He’s fought stop-and-frisk, as well as the Rockefeller drug laws. He has also pushed for higher minimum wages, Glass-Steagall, green jobs, a financial transactions tax, and many other decent things. It almost makes sense that the Working Families Party has dubbed Jeffries the “clear choice for the 99%.”
Jeffries is progressive. Yet on education, he’s deeply in thrall to the hedge fund reformers.
Sure, he did sue the city to challenge the hiring of Cathie Black, the insultingly unqualified schools chancellor. He’s also pushed for more funding for public education. But Jeffries is close to the financiers lobbying for ever more school privatization, and that relationship has deepened in the last couple of years. In 2010, Jeffries also co-sponsored legislation to dramatically raise the cap on charter schools, a move which has deluged our communities with venture capitalist experiments, further overcrowded our school buildings, sapped resources from existing schools, and exacerbated a sense that good education is a competition rather than a right. Thanks to Democrats like Jeffries, we are flooding the system with charters that are largely (with a handful of exceptions) no better than the public schools, accountable to no one but the financiers on their board, and likely to starve the schools of the majority still further. We are allowing a massive union-busting scheme under the sentimental guise of helping children.
While Jeffries has, in the past, defended public schools in his district—attending a parent rally in Prospect Heights, for example, to protect a middle school from closing and being replaced by a charter—he has been changing his tune as his race for Congress heats up. After all, running for national office takes money. Last summer Jeffries criticized the NAACP’s lawsuit to stop “separate but unequal” space-sharing between public and charter schools. (Jeffries’s campaign communications office did not respond to a request from “Report Card” to interview the Assemblyman.)
In return for his attentive service, Jeffries is a darling of the neo-liberal education reform movement, and its patrons have been tipping him generously. The finance, real estate, and insurance industries, along with law firms and lobbyists, account for the majority of Jeffries’s campaign largesse, with labor a tiny fraction. Among single-issue groups, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)—a pro-privatization and anti-union group, whose directors and advisers are mostly financiers—is his top supporter.
This is exactly how bad policy happens even to good politicians: money. As Alice Brennan and Curtis Skinner revealed in New York World in mid-April, lobby groups in Albany are now spending more on education than on any other issue. Students First, Education Reform Now, and Education Reform Now Advocacy are all associated with former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, and the groups receive support from many of the same zealots in the hedge fund industry.
Defending public education is no longer obligatory, even for liberal Democrats, and all this finance money is a big part of the reason. President Obama’s education policy has been all about standardized testing and privatization. Jonah Edelman, son of iconic liberal activist and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, heads an awful group called Stand for Children, which in the ’90s was known for pushing for more public school funding, and now works on busting teachers’ unions nationwide. Some of Stand for Children’s biggest donors in 2010—the most recent year that the organization’s tax filings and annual report were publicly available—were private equity guys, including the managing director of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s company, whose practices were so rapacious they caused Newt Gingrich to condemn capitalism during the recent Republican primary. These are not the people who should be setting the agenda for our schools.
“Report Card” is not arguing that Hakeem Jeffries is a bad person. There’s a more important lesson here: Public education is not part of the broad progressive agenda, and it should be. Leaders like Jeffries should face much more pressure to defend teachers, and fight privatization. Some people—labor leaders, fellow liberal advocates, and politicians—should be calling up Jeffries and talking over the matter as friends. Others should be occupying his office. Liberal candidates should hear, not just from teachers and parents but from all progressive forces, that venture capitalists are not education experts, and that public schools cannot be sold out.
Only movements can counter money. The language of Occupy should not provide cover to those who are acting loyal servants on behalf of the city’s financiers—rather, it should inspire us to wrest education policy from those financiers. Politicians will always be a bit slippery, no doubt. But when our movements build power and speak with one voice, those elected officials will make better policy.