Shavar Jeffries calls himself “a product of the transformative power of quality education.” And now from his post as president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), he’s fighting to bring that power to kids all across the country. And as he showed last week with a pointed reminder to Hillary Clinton on the importance of standardized testing in making sure all students are being served well, he’ll be a vocal champion for kids in need. But he also wants to remind us that in order to be truly responsive to students and their families, “we must listen more and talk less.”
If you could take a coffee break with any public official or current candidate for public office, who would it be, where would you go, what would you order, and what would you talk about?
I would most want to talk to Barack Obama at Burger Walla in Newark—not sure if they have coffee, but the burgers are too good to pass up. And there would be so much to talk about, but I think I’d be most interested to hear his insights on leadership after almost eight years of political leadership at the highest level.
Education hasn’t been a big part of the presidential campaign. Should it be? Or should the attention be more local?
Few issues will have as big of an impact on our country’s future as our public education system. Yet, particularly when it comes to K-12, the presidential debate this cycle has not adequately focused on the important work that needs to be done to ensure our kids receive the high-quality public education they each deserve.
While there’s been an important and robust debate on improving quality and affordability in higher education, our Democratic candidates cannot shy away from K-12 issues, which are a key concern for voters and families across the country. There’s so much at stake in this election, particularly when it comes to protecting and continuing President Obama’s historic legacy of investing resources and advancing commonsense reforms in our schools.
Our 45th president must be a Democrat who is willing to build on the progress of the last eight years and preserve our party’s long tradition of advancing opportunity and social justice for all—and that starts by improving our education system.
Talk about how education, particularly the ability to exercise school choice, impacted your childhood and your life?
I am a product of the transformative power of a quality education. I was raised by my grandmother, a public school teacher, in Newark’s South Ward and attended public schools for most of my early childhood. But I was able to enroll in a private prep school after receiving a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship from the Boys and Girls Club of Newark to attend Seton Hall Prep, and from there was lucky enough to go on to Duke University and eventually earn a law degree from Columbia University.
The fact is, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been given the option to choose a high-quality education. That single choice changed the course of my life and opened so many doors that were previously slammed shut.
But I was lucky—and I am no different than any of the other kids from my block who weren’t afforded the same opportunity that I was. That’s what motivates me to keep advocating for our children, particularly those whose educational futures have been shortchanged because of what neighborhood they happen to live in or what zip code they happen to be from. At the end of the day, more options mean more opportunity, and every child deserves that.
In your roles as a school board member, a mayoral candidate, a longtime civil rights attorney, and now as president of DFER, I imagine you’ve listened to a lot of students and parents talk about what they want from their schools. What have you learned from those conversations?
No matter where I go or who I talk to, families want good public schools that will equip their children with the quality education they need—and deserve—in order to realize their full potential and succeed in life. It’s a basic, but fundamental, expectation that too many of our schools are failing to deliver on: arming students with the tools they need to be college- or career-ready when they get their diplomas.
A new report from our affiliated think tank, Education Reform Now (in partnership with Education Post), just revealed that 1 in 4 students who go to college immediately after high school graduation have to enroll in remedial education classes in order to learn content and skills they should have learned in high school, a finding that cuts across schools of all types and families from all backgrounds.
This additional learning time and tuition is costing families across the country a whopping $1.5 billion per year. It’s unacceptable. Parents entrust their children’s futures to our public schools, and the results are bearing out that too many of our kids aren’t coming out ready for the next step. Something has to change.
Where do we, in the education reform movement, most need to get better?
I’m proud of the incredible progress we’ve made, but I’ll be the first to tell you that there’s still much more to be done for our kids, and we at DFER won’t stop until every child in this country realizes his or her full potential through a world-class public education. Unfortunately, we are attempting to challenge a deeply entrenched (and broken) status quo. In order to be most effective, we focus on delivering a clear and consistent message that cuts through the noise and resonates with folks.
But, we also have to remember, to be most effective we must listen more and talk less. Listening to the local community, hearing their concerns, understanding their hopes and dreams for their babies, and really working together to open up an effective dialogue with everyone involved is crucial to our collective success.
We could have the best ideas or solutions in the world, but without the trust and confidence of local families, students, educators and community leaders, it’s all for naught. We as a movement can get really passionate about this work and get so excited about helping kids, but we can all use the reminder once in a while to take a step back and listen.
Help out us fellow dads with young kids. Any recommendations for a relaxing summer vacation?
A few years ago, my wife and I took our two wonderful kids on a road trip to Disney World, and we all had such a great time. It was definitely a commitment—let me tell you, Newark to Orlando isn’t a quick trip—but it was a perfect opportunity to get away, unplug and really connect as a family. I highly recommend it!