The Online War Over NYU And Columbia’s SFER Campaign
/ November 16, 2012

Last week, we reported on the most recent campaign launched by the Students for Education Reform chapters at NYU and Columbia. It focuses on urging Mayor Bloomberg’s Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers to come to an agreement on teacher evaluations – a deal that, with Governor Cuomo’s blessing, could land New York City public schools with upwards of $300 million. Its (updated) slogan, “One Deal, $300M for NYC,” and hashtag #dealfor300m reiterate the point of an impending rally held by the two chapters on November 29th.

The last talk in major media outlets about the teacher evaluations deal was from last year, when Governor Cuomo basically placed the responsibility of coming to an agreement on the local authorities and teachers unions. However, from what we know, our report was the first to bring notice to the SFER campaign here in our own backyard. Since then, let’s just say a can of worms has been opened. And, as we all know, nothing is louder than a good ol’ fashioned argument on the Internet.

The first backlash against the post came from EduShyster.com, a play-on-words blog that strives to keep “an eye on the corporate education agenda.” The anonymous blogger pulled out the big guns of blogtalk (an $ was used for the S in SFER, dissenting ideas were crossed out, etc.) to attack the campaign:

In this outstanding article in the NYU newspaper, the goal of the $FER activists is described as “afflicting change in the classroom.” I’d say that’s a pretty good description. The grassroot-sters are planning a rally for 11/29 that they hope will attract hundreds of students. They even have a groovy slogan:  “Get It Together, $300 Million, One Deal.”

It has a certain ring to it but surely our $FER friends deserve a better slogan than that. How about: “Let the might waters of education reform continue to rise,” or my personal favorite: “Pawns of Billionaires?

But the main argument here focuses on SFER National, which has come under criticism in the past for its corporate ties. And that same criticism has been attributed towards President Sam Williams, VP Andrew Barron and others involved; all of whom are broke college kids “Pawns of Billionaires.”  Also, NYU Local is the blog of NYU NYU’s student newspaper.

“They’re attacking the organization here as a whole; not the issue at hand. What we want is attention on that issue,” Williams told me. “We encourage dialogue that is productive for the discussion. However, we’re not going to engage in this rude rhetoric that bloggers have been using. It’s giving readers false accusations of who we are.”

Let’s continue. The second post, by Stephanie Rivera – a well-known education blogger at Rutgers, was much more toned down than the one we just saw. Here’s a quick blurb from it:

This reminds me a lot of the Chicago Teachers Union strike this past year, and the same attacks seem to sure be on its way to UFT if they don’t “give in” to compromising with the teacher evaluations.

This is just what I am assuming SFER and other supporters may throw out: If teachers don’t compromise and accept the teacher evaluations that Bloomberg wants them to, that means teachers are being selfish and do not have the best interest of the kids.

The president of the NYU SFER Chapter, Sam Williams, did respond to a comment left on this post stating that they are not advocating for a side.

For context, check the ‘Comments’ section under our first article. As noted, Rivera goes after the entire organization and uses the teacher strike in Chicago as reference. But, she also points that Williams has made it clear that in no way, shape or form is the campaign telling a particular side to “give in” to demands. To showcase her civility towards the issue, Rivera will be attending the rally on November 29th.

I tweeted this post by Rivera out the day it was posted and found myself hunkered down in a quick tweet spat. Full disclaimer: I’m simply reporting what I see and following the argumentative patterns that have been taken on both sides. Hopefully, I’ve made that clear:



But, as it turns out, @mfriendman10’s main concern was with the trust we can place on these funds. How will the $300 million be accounted for once it’s dumped onto our schools’ budgets? And, as with any large sum of governmental dollars, that’s a valid question. Except the SFER chapters at NYU and Columbia’s campaign is about its acquisition, not its later distribution (if there even is any).

Also, to cap this controversy off, SFERnyu received a message on Twitter from Diane Ravitch, the former Assistant Secretary of Education under Dubya and a forerunner of No Child Left Behind. She’s now a research professor here at Steinhardt and her office, coincidentally, is around the corner from where the SFERnyu meetings are held. She had sound advice for the campaign:



One must keep in mind that, with Governor Cuomo’s top-down transfer of responsibility, a piece of the state’s education budget for next year has been cut out for this $300 million. In other words, schools’ budgets will be affixed as if the agreement has already happened, which could lead to dire straits if the two parties fail to sit down at the table. It’s like an ages-5-to-17 version of Congress’s current fiscal cliff ordeal.

So, regardless of all these loud noises on the web, Williams and Barron stressed the stern message yet again.

“If this deal doesn’t pass, the schools will be forced to cut back, re-examine their budgets and reallocate funds. It’s no longer a carrot, it’s a stick,” Williams said. “It makes the claim that we’re only in it for the money completely invalid – the budget dynamic is totally different and heightens the sense of urgency.”

As the rally draws closer, Barron encourages the backlash but is hopeful that law and order can be maintained in the discussion: “The original post completely opened the dialogue and sparked reaction across the board, which I think is great. I love hearing from those who aren’t 100% in favor of our rally, because it allows for an exchange of ideas, which is integral for any reform movement.”

Ironically, the entire notion of simply talking about the sheer amount of money at play here was pushed forward by the bloggers and tweeters who disagree with the NYU and Columbia SFER chapters. In terms of attention, backlash can backfire in that sense. Whether it’s positive or negative, in the end, it’s still publicity.

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