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Why These Students Disaffiliated from SFER National

I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since my controversial post on Students For Education Reform (SFER). It is incredible to see how much has changed, positions that have shifted, and seeing how much the post is still being circulated.

As many know, University of Chicago disaffiliated from SFER National just a few months ago. Last week, DePaul University’s followed suit.

I applaud these students for their deliberate discussion and consideration before making their decision. I also want to thank them for allowing me to publish this letter, for as you will find, it is very powerful and eye-opening. It speaks volumes coming from students who had a first-hand experience with SFER themselves.

Bravo, DePaul University (ex)SFER members. Proud to call you allies, and look forward to seeing the work you all do for educational justice in Chicago in the future.

Here is their official letter they sent to SFER National (emphasis are my own):

To the staff of SFER National,

After months of discussion and reflection, we have decided to formally announce the disaffiliation of DePaul University from Students for Education Reform. We have been  struggling with the next course of action for some time now, but with University of  Chicago’s recent disaffiliation, we found it the most appropriate time to do so ourselves. Although this may come as more sad news to the Students for Education Reform community, we truly feel that it is in the best interest of our organization. Our leaving Students for Education Reform is the result of many contributing factors.

Our major hesitation to continue with Students for Education Reform is due to the narrowness of the organization’s policies. Students for Education Reform claims to be an organization that wishes to engage students in discussions and activism surrounding current education reform issues, but it seemed to us that we were only presented with information and resources that targeted a specific viewpoint- that of Students for Education Reform National.

To offer an example, when the teacher’s strike occurred in the fall, it was definitely a topic we wanted to cover and discuss. Through SFER’s connections, we were able to have a representative from the mayor’s office attend one of our meetings to talk about their perspective on the strike. To balance our discussion of the strike, we also wanted to have a member of the union come in to speak to us. Although we were told by our PD that this was a good idea and that he would work on it, that idea never came to fruition and we only received the one side of the debate. To expand on this, the speakers and connections that were usually made through SFER were groups who partner with them, such as Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) and Teach for America (TFA). We were also encouraged to support Stand for Children’s rallies and promote their agenda. From our viewpoint, all of these connections did not represent a range of voices and views and therefore did not provide a comprehensive understanding of the current debates in education.

As an organization that wishes to encourage dialogue surrounding and exploring the current state of education, we felt that these speakers and connections were inherently one-sided. This is not say that we were explicitly discouraged from hearing a range of viewpoints, but that the resources available from SFER did not support this.

We were under the impression that we could act as an autonomous DePaul chapter but felt compelled to pursue the agenda that National had set.

When we first joined and our alliances were questioned, we were told by the current chapter leaders that we were able  to make our own stances. When we became CL’s and asked the PD, he would confirm this impression. It seemed a constant challenge to combat the assumptions people had about our group simply based on the name of our organization and being associated with SFER National. As mentioned previously, the resources and connections available to us through SFER seemed to represent viewpoints on the same side of the debates over education reform. This seemed to be a push to support these views, some of which touch on some of the most controversial topics in the discussion, such as school turnarounds and the power of the mayor.

While we appreciated Students for Education Reform’s attempt to allow us as chapter leaders and members to participate in the hiring process for some of the new program directors, we were very taken aback by the decision to replace the previous Illinois Program Director. We felt that it came on extremely short notice and that we were not given adequate justification for why he was let-go and required replacing. We as a chapter had developed a substantial relationship with our Program Director and were upset to see him go in the manner in which it happened. As our Program Director, he  was constantly in-contact with us and keeping us on track while giving us the support and resources to do so. Once he was gone, we struggled to keep getting things done and our organization essentially weakened and fell apart. This was seen as a failure on the part of National to communicate and be transparent with its chapters affected by these decisions.

As a university founded on Vincentian Principles, we as DePaul students aim to be sensitive to and care for the needs of each other and of those served, with a special concern for the poor or less fortunate members of society. The children of this nation, and even more personally the city of Chicago, are being deprived of a quality and meaningful education. While we appreciate Students for Education Reform’s goal of involving college students in this important issue, we believe that the way to positive change in education will come in a different model than what SFER encourages. As an organization we believe that true change in education will come in the form of grass-root organizing- involving students, parents, and communities alike.

After months of discussion, this is our decision. We appreciate the support that we received from National, particularly in regards to resources, connections, and encouragement, and for the significant learning opportunity that this experience has been for us. We have furthered our understandings of what social activism can look like and have done a great amount of reflection about how we feel about the education system. We feel that to be successful on our campus, we must  find new avenues to pursue our interests and passions so as to better serve the  communities we hope to impact and improve.

Wishing you all the best.


[Names have been removed for privacy purposes]

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Stephanie Rivera

Stephanie Rivera is a student at Rutgers University. She is a future teacher and educational equity activist. ...