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Rethinking “Youth-Led” – Students for Education Reform

I am a transparency hawk. Since joining my high school’s debate team, I have had an itch to uncover the truth. Dishonesty gets under my skin. One particular sector could use more transparency: “youth-led” organizations.

The story is the same. Charities grow people with money. These people have vested interests in making certain changes. Youth either led it to this point or join shortly after. Regardless, this organization is now “youth” sanctioned, and ostensibly “youth-led.” I have seen this happen too many times. I want to do something about it.

Here’s my shot: I want to walk through several organizations that are less than transparent. I’m not going to make any overly critical judgments, instead focusing on bringing the information into the light for others to assess it.

Let’s start where my skepticism of “youth-led” programs began: Students for Education Reform (SFER).

The Past – Spring 2012

I first heard about SFER in high school, and I found its website less than informative. Doing some digging revealed the organization had controversial ties. I was livid. Inspired by this phenomenal post by Jonathan Pelto, I wrote the following piece in May of 2012:

SFER claims to enact change by first “changing public opinion”, then “enacting policies that create conditions for lasting success,” and finally “flood[ing] the human capital pipeline.” Vague enough for you? Try their purported impact, which includes “securing legislative victories that put students first.” SFER’s “Learn” section, probably created to remedy some of these confusing non-answers, is nothing more than conglomerations of journal articles on various education reform-esque subjects.

50CAN, ConnCAN, and Teachers for America are all sponsors of SFER. Luckily, it seems like SFER’s board might have their interests in mind. Those interests, by the way, are the expansion of charter schools (at least for 50CAN and ConnCAN, that is).

The general vagueness of SFER makes it difficult to objectively rebut. Thus, after hours of research, please forgive me for throwing off my mask (blindfold?) of objectivity for the rest of this piece. SFER has no official policies because it is the puppet of its “partners.” A subsidiary of 50CAN gets legislation on the floor to increase funding for charter schools. Said subsidiary then whistles for essentially clueless college students to come support their efforts. SFER targets state policies because state houses dictate the rules of charter schools, not because there is an actual attempt to “put students first.”

Of course, none of this can be proven.

This was my first exposure to the idea that a group can be “astroturf,” and the dishonesty stung.* My writing reflected this. All told, I wrote four pages about SFER. Some of it was heated. And what did I do with this document? Nothing. I sat idly with it. My irritation with dishonesty and my pursuit of the truth were less valuable to me than “playing it safe” by not saying anything at all. By August, it didn’t matter.

Someone else spoke up. My favorite student blogger/celebrity crush Stephanie Rivera raised the same issues more articulately in a post to her blog and began a nationwide conversation about SFER. Because of her voice, skepticism of SFER became commonplace. The organization she co-founded arose as an alternative. She created change.

A few days ago, I had a strange thought: what is SFER up to now?

The Present – Winter 2013

SFER has made visible changes since 2012. A few board members have left, and one has joined. The organization removed their list of “partners” from their website. The organization mentions “supporters” who have donated over $5,000, even contentious figures like the Walton Family. The policies SFER supports are more defined. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

We will see this issue again and again. Vagueness enables an organization to appeal to everyone. As it defines its stances, it loses both appeal and clout. I find it preposterous to claim all students support the Walton Family’s brand of education reform.

Here’s how SFER’s principles begin (emphasis my own):

As college students and graduates of the K-12 system, we believe that in order to graduate high school and succeed in college and career, our K-12 peers need access to great teachers and leaders, a rigorous curriculum, and a joyful learning environment in a system that develops and supports high-quality instruction and places student achievement first.

We speak the truth about our personal experiences in the K-12 system. We take action motivated by hope and sense of possibility about what a student-centered public education system could look like. We believe educational equity is a social justice issue that is deeply connected to the struggle to overcome all barriers to opportunity and equality in this country. We are a diverse student movement representative of all backgrounds and educational experiences; speaking from our own experiences, we engage diverse stakeholder groups and work with the local community to tackle educational inequity.

Our advocacy work and campus organizing are guided by our student-written statement of principles that articulates — from a student perspective — the changes we believe are necessary to achieve educational equity in the United States.

I am impressed by how many times “Students for Education Reform” feels the need to remind us it is a student organization. Given their choice of funders and policies, I dispute SFER’s claim that it represents all backgrounds of students. I’m not condemning SFER for its affiliations, but rather illustrating that taking those stances should preclude it from claiming to be universal.

I personally agree with many of SFER’s policies. In fact, I found one of SFER’s five principles wholly supportable: “Fiscal transparency and accountability.”

The text of this principle is available here (number five).

We believe that students deserve school systems that spend public dollars on improving instruction and effective practices that raise student achievement. We believe that systems should display more transparency in where and why dollars are spent and in evaluating the efficacy of those expenditures.

My inner transparency crusader loves this; however, it’s incomplete. An organization championing fiscal transparency for schools should do the same for its own assets. Thankfully, the US government requires nonprofits to file publicly available tax returns. I prefer hard numbers to narratives anyway, so I was overjoyed to find SFER’s data. What I uncovered was fascinating.

SFER has two Form 990’s available on the Foundation Center’s website. For the 2010 (November 2010 – August 2011) tax year, SFER had $30,000 in gross receipts. By the end of the next period (ending August 31, 2012), SFER had $1,968,212 in gross receipts. That’s an increase of more than 6400%. What caused this? I don’t associate “student” activists with (nearly) multi-million dollar revenues. Even the expenses are suspect: SFER spent $780,470 during the 2011 period. I can’t wrap my head around why a youth-led organization needs to spend this much. Here’s where the money was spent**:

If SFER wants more transparency, here’s a start. Make your own conclusions.

The thing that concerns me the most is the source of this funding. Yes, SFER discloses donations of over $5,000. It does not, however, note how much the donors gave. To put it another way: which wealthy businessperson has the biggest stake in this student education reform group? This money came from somebody.

Rejoinder

So what do we know about Students for Education Reform? It claims to be a youth-led organization, but that has been called into question. Its former partners and current supporters offer a specific brand of education reform incongruous to how some students think. The budget of the organization increased dramatically over a year’s time, and it’s unclear which donors are leading this charge. All the while, SFER promises to promote school transparency. For an organization pushing schools to become more transparent, SFER isn’t doing a great job itself.

I hope to shed light on more organizations soon – stay tuned.

* Astroturf = pretending to be grassroots. Pretty clever, right?

** I have grouped the expenditures using my own terminology. If anyone objects to my terminology, I can provide line-by-line expenditures from SFER’s Form 990.

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