On April 14, in what was the most dramatic moment in the Democratic Party’s state assembly, party activists won delegates’ assembly approval for a demand that the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) stop using the word “Democrat” in its name.
The move exposed a deepening schism in the party over school choice and is raising fears among Democrats that the fight could cost them their chance at taking control of the state Senate in November.
An emotional Jennifer Walmer, the executive director of DFER-Colorado, pleaded with delegates to reject the request. “I’m a lifelong Democrat,” she told the assembly in Broomfield. “I have been a member my entire life … I’ve only ever supported Democrats.”
When Walmer told the assembly she was DFER’s executive director, she was booed.
Walmer continued that her board, made up of elected Democrats, is “singularly focused on every child having a quality education” and that she is opposed to what she described as the effort by President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to privatize public education.
But other delegates said DFER, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to elect pro-charter-school members to the Denver Public Schools board, has silenced the voice of displaced students like Vanessa Quintana.
Quintana told the assembly that she’d attended 10 different schools by the time she reached 12th grade, including several that were closed, calling it the result of DFER’s education reform policies.
“DFER claims to uphold Democratic values,” added assembly delegate Kristin Mallory, stating that what it really does is allow charter schools to obtain corporate sponsorships and leave poor schools behind.
The DFER resolution came from the Denver County assembly and Nicky Yollick, a candidate for state House District 5. Yollick told the assembly that DFER had threatened to withhold money from Democrats running for re-election, as well as Democrats running for the state Senate, if they signed an anti-DFER petition that circulated in the weeks before the assembly.
“DFER said they are more valuable than teachers’ unions,” Yollick told the assembly. The group “is threatening to hold our party hostage and rely on what they’ve all been about from the beginning: money.”
Democrats for Education Reform is a national organization with chapters in ten states and the District of Columbia and started by New York billionaire hedge fund managers. The organization backs charter schools and school choice, and according to critics, wants to get rid of teachers’ unions and privatize public education, all in an attempt to monetize the system on behalf of wealthy corporate donors.
And the organization is doing quite well for itself, with millions of dollars from donors like the Walton Family Foundation, which also helped pay for legal expenses for the Douglas County School District when it defended its proposed taxpayer-funded voucher in court.
The foundation has been very generous with DFER’s 501(c)3 funding arm, Education Reform Now (ERN), with $16 million in donations between 2010 and 2016, according to foundation grant reports.
The connection to the Walton Family Foundation (founded by Walmart owner Sam Walton) however, goes much deeper than money.
Whitney Tilson, one of three DFER founders, said he was inspired to start the organization by John Walton, Sam Walton’s son. Tilson wrote in a 2010 blog post that he and other hedge fund managers interested in charter schools and education reform began meeting with Walton and discovered they were the only Democrats in the room. Proponents of school choice could raise money from Republicans but Democrats were shutting the door, he said.
“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican Party, it was the Democratic Party,” Tilson said. “So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic Party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job.”
In a self-funded documentary on DFER, “A Right Denied,” Tilson added that “our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican Party to our point of view.”
And despite Walmer’s claim that her organization doesn’t support the Trump administration’s effort to privatize public education, another DFER founder and its current co-chair, R. Boykin Curry IV, has sat on the board of the John Walton-founded Alliance for School Choice, which backs school privatization. The board chair when Curry was on the alliance board and until 2016 was DeVos, now Trump’s secretary of education.
In addition, DFER President Shavar Jeffries issued a statement of support for DeVos when she was nominated as secretary of education, although that same statement expressed concern for Trump’s education agenda. Jeffries and DFER walked that support back two months later after DeVos’ confirmation hearing.
DFER’s founders haven’t been shy about contributing to Colorado Democrats in their effort to drum up support for school choice. Tilson gave money to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder for his 2008 and 2012 congressional campaigns and is a current contributor to the gubernatorial campaign of former state Sen. Michael Johnston of Denver.
Curry also gave money to Polis in 2008, as did DFER’s third founder, John Petry, who gave money to Polis in 2012, 2014 and 2016 and is a current contributor to Johnston. Polis, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.
At the statehouse level, Education Reform Now (ERN), DFER’s funding arm, has been generous with Democrats, although not directly. The Secretary of State’s TRACER system, which tracks campaign contributions, shows only $2,500 from DFER and its affiliates to state House and Senate candidates in 2016.
It’s the money that ERN puts into other campaign committees that makes the group valuable to Colorado Democrats, and equally nervous about losing the group’s financial support with the 2018 election ramping up.
In the 2016 election cycle, ERN and Education Reform Now Advocacy, another fundraising arm, gave nearly a half million dollars to the Colorado Citizens’ Alliance, an independent expenditure committee (IEC) that ran ads in support of Democratic Senate candidates and against Republican opponents. (IECs are prohibited by law from coordinating with candidates.)
A House version of that group, CommonSense Values, got $455,000 in the 2016 cycle from the two ERN groups. Blueflower Action, which backs Democratic women candidates, got $55,000. Another $200,000 went into Coloradans Creating Opportunities, another group that backed Democrats for the House and Senate and/or opposed Republicans.
But it’s clear that some Senate Democrats are nervous about what DFER would do financially in 2018 if the organization was publicly opposed at the state assembly.
The DFER Colorado board — which includes two former Democratic speakers of the House, Terrance Carroll and Mark Ferrandino — sent a letter to Democratic delegates shortly before the April 13 event asking them not to sign the minority petition that led to the assembly action.
The board told the delegates about DFER’s track record on “progressive” education legislation, including “equitable funding and access to mill levy overrides for all students.” That’s a 2016 measure that required all school districts not already doing so to share mill levy overrides with charter schools, which had complained they were being shortchanged on property tax dollars that could help finance charter school construction.
The letter also claimed that that “extreme policies of the Trump/DeVos administration … which bear no resemblance to DFER positions,” are being used as a “cudgel” for those who disagree with DFER.
Five members of the Senate — Sens. Matt Jones of Boulder, Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village, Andy Kerr of Lakewood, Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Nancy Todd of Aurora — did sign the minority petition. Jones and Kagan later crossed their names out. Kagan told Colorado Politics he was “urged by others who thought it was ill-advised” and unnecessarily divisive at a time when Democrats need to be unified. Jones said simply he thought better of it.
Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, whose campaign has benefited from DFER money in the past, is a co-chair, along with Sen. Lois Court, of the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund (DSCF). She told delegates shortly before the assembly in a text message that the caucus is split over DFER, as are some of the Democratic Senate candidates. “And the DSCF will be impacted” in its fundraising if she signed the petition, Zenzinger said.
A spokesperson for DFER-Colorado, Erika Soto Lamb, in an email to Colorado Politics denied that Walmer or anyone else associated with the group threatened to pull funding from the DSCF if Senate Democrats signed the assembly petition.
Merrifield told Colorado Politics that Democratic candidates don’t have the opportunity to go to deep-pocketed sources for funds like Republicans do. “Because there’s fewer to choose from, Democrats are more desperate to get significant funds from other organizations like DFER, which has deep pockets because they don’t raise money from members like the Colorado Education Association does.” Merrifield claimed DFER has donors like DeVos and the Waltons.
“The frustration from me is that my party would accept money from the very enemies that we stake our political careers” opposing, he added.
It’s unknown whether the assembly’s decision will have any impact on DFER. A “Use of Name” committee within the state party is supposed to be making that decision in the coming weeks.
“This won’t die down,” said Skip Madsen, a delegate and member of DemEnterCo, a local 501(c)4 progressive group. He believes the DFER letter to assembly delegates backfired because it raised awareness of DFER outside of Denver and led people at the assembly to ask questions about the organization.
This isn’t DFER’s first ride at the rodeo over its use of the word “Democrat” in violation of party rules and/or state law. In 2012, the Los Angeles Democratic Party sent the California chapter a “cease and desist” letter, demanding it drop the Democrat word from its name. The state party followed up a year later with a resolution denouncing the group. California no longer has a DFER chapter.
Colorado has similar party rules and a state law — CRS 1-3-108 — that requires anyone using the name of a political party obtain permission to do so.
There’s one more thing to know about DFER and its Colorado staff: in May 2017, Ilana Spiegel, an education advocate with Taxpayers for Public Education filed a complaint with the Secretary of State. Spiegel alleged Walmer and her then-research director, Jack Teter, were illegally lobbying at the state Capitol on education bills without being registered as lobbyists. DFER does have lobbyists on staff, but Walmer and Teter are regulars at the capitol, hanging out with lobbyists and testifying on education bills.
The complaint was stalled in January when Walmer got a new attorney, but four months later, the Secretary of State’s office continues to say the complaint investigation is ongoing although nearing a conclusion.
Spiegel told Colorado Politics she’s never been contacted by the Secretary of State’s office about the complaint, almost a year after filing it. Lamb told Colorado Politics that as executive director, Walmer is not a lobbyist.
Walmer continues to be a regular presence at the Capitol in the 2018 session. Spiegel is contemplating another complaint.
Correction: to note that DemEnter is a progressive group; it is not affiliated with the Democratic Party; Lamb is a spokesperson for DFER-Colorado, which includes Walmer; and DFER has chapters in 10 states plus the District of Columbia, according to its website.