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The Politics of Education: A Q&A with Shavar Jeffries

November 20, 2015
Advocating to help more students attend great schools

Shavar Jeffries is a civil rights attorney in Newark, N.J., who recently became the president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). He spoke with the Walton Family Foundation about his plans and the importance of education advocacy.

Why is education advocacy important?

Jeffries: All of the good things that those of us who support education reform see at individual schools cannot continue without political advocacy. Every gain that we’ve seen at any individual school can be ended in a heartbeat if we do not have the political influence and the leverage in the political process to ensure that policies that we believe and that the evidence shows are great for kids and great for our country are allowed to sustain themselves.

So, you think politics and education are inextricably linked?

Jeffries: The educational goals we have are inseparable from the political and the advocacy work. If you don’t do the advocacy work, you cannot, in my judgment, be committed to the long-term sustainability of what’s happening at the school level.

What are your top goals at DFER?

Jeffries: Our mission is to build upon the great work that DFER has done and to strengthen an advocacy infrastructure to support candidates and policymakers to support the kind of changes we know will work for kids. We need to make sure they have the kind of policy support they need, the communications support they need, but also the political support they need — the resources they need to win campaigns when issues that affect our children are up for debate. They also need the resources to mobilize voters and mobilize constituencies to support change.

What’s your next move in this work?

Jeffries: We need to take the advocacy work to an entirely new level. We need more resources; we need more bodies; we need more political access. We have to double down, and, after we double down, we have to double down again. We have to continue to fight, and fight harder to ensure that kids receive the kind of education they deserve.

We need everyone who believes in education reform to roll up their sleeves, take their jackets off, and be ready to invest in the advocacy efforts that we need to sustain the changes our kids deserve.

There are many areas where we can collaborate, and we can work with folks who may have different views on some principles of school reform — whether it’s school funding, whether it’s teacher preparation, whether it’s higher ed access. There are so many areas where we can form broad-based coalitions, and I think we ought to seek those opportunities out. But there is also a whole other set of issues — the core opportunity to have choice, the need to have quality and not quantity-based personnel practices — and those are areas where we’re going to have to fight and we’re going to have to advocate.

What are the top education reforms you think you’ll be pushing for?

Jeffries: Choice for families is an essential component. We believe parents know their children best. They understand the needs of their children best, and parents ought to be empowered to make decisions about the schools that are going to serve their children. We believe that educators need the resources they need to be effective in the classroom. We also believe there needs to be performance-based and quality-based accountability around what happens in the classroom. Related to that is high-quality professional development.

Why is this so important to you personally?

Jeffries: I grew up in the South Ward of Newark. I grew up in a family that was beautiful and brilliant but in a family where access to college wasn’t there for us in the community. In eighth grade, I received a scholarship to go to a college prep private high school. I just happened to be at Boys and Girls Club playing and a philanthropist had made this resource available; one of the counselors approached me and said we have this opportunity for you, and that opportunity changed my life. I was prepared to compete at the highest levels. I graduated from high school at the top of my class and I went on to college and I went on to law school, and it was all because of this opportunity I received back in 1987.

It was very clear to me that I had been blessed with this opportunity to receive a great education, not so I could simply do well myself but so that I could give back and make sure other children had the same opportunity. For me, this is a personal passion to ensuring that every child receives a great education is at the heart of what America strives to be. It’s also at the heart of how we ensure our country’s continued growth and prosperity. So for me, it is a personal mission, but it’s also one that’s connected with my love for our country and the people in it.

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