Schaffer aims to use the skills he’ll gain at Harris to bridge the policy world with the political world.
Dylan Schaffer
Dylan Schaffer

Since finishing his bachelor of arts degree in government in 2016, Dylan Schaffer has already been given a crash course (of sorts) in public policy. Working as Manager of Planning and External Affairs at Ascend Public Charter Schools in Brooklyn, NY, Schaffer has seen the charter school movement’s image become tarnished in recent years. “The mistakes and excesses of some charter management organizations (including for-profit chains) have overshadowed the progress and innovation being made at growing, nonprofit organizations like Ascend,” said Schaffer.

“We just saw a lot of folks elected to various local and state positions who are not naturally favorable to charter schools. They are incredibly skeptical of the work we do, in part, because all charter schools get lumped together,” said Schaffer.

Schaffer, who will be enrolling in the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy in fall 2019, has worked hard to change that perception, talking to local officials and community stakeholders about the charter organization’s successes (for example, posting the highest combined three-year proficiency gains in English language arts and mathematics last year among New York City charter organizations while dramatically reducing suspension rates).

“I really love the work I do here, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done,” Schaffer says. “But I see the ways that numerous other urban policy issues in Brooklyn—from transportation and economic development to gun violence and racial tensions—have deeply affected this community.

“For me, it would be helpful to flesh out my understanding of how those different policies and issues interact with each other.”

As an undergraduate, Schaffer had already thought about pursuing graduate studies in public policy, and his experience at Ascend gave him a nudge. Although staying on the East Coast near family and friends appealed to Schaffer, who grew up in Rhode Island and was accepted to other public affairs graduate programs closer to home, Harris’ emphasis on economics and rigorous analysis, combined with Chicago’s political history was a major draw. So were the historic local elections that swept in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other outsiders.

“To be in a place that’s grappling with all these changes—and challenges—in real time and up close is exciting to me,” he said.

He traces his fascination with government and public policy back at least 15 years, sitting around the dinner table talking politics as well as his family helping out on mayoral races and his uncle’s campaigns for the local school board.

“Growing up in a really chaotic time politically, with the evolution of the [George W.] Bush presidency, and then seeing Barack Obama come on the scene, magnified my interest in current affairs. Obama was an inspiring figure to me at a formative time in my life.”

While still an undergrad, he worked as a legislative campaign assistant for the campaign finance reform organization MAYDAY.US and as a policy fellow for the charter school advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform.

What does he hope to do after earning his MPP from Harris in 2021?

“I would definitely love to spend some time working on a high-energy campaign, for either a candidate or for a cause that progressives care deeply about.”

In the long run, he wants to work in a way that helps “bridge the policy world with the political world.” That could be accomplished in a number of ways in government or the nonprofit sector, he says.

“I’m eager for things to unfold how they will, and to follow the lead of all the great opportunities available to me through the Harris program.”