New K-12 Advocacy Groups Wield State-Level Clout
Impact seen on issues such as teacher evaluation, charter schools
By all accounts, the process of passing a new educator-evaluation law in Colorado was a bruising one. Lawmakers recall tearful meetings with teachers and their unions, vicious emails from constituents, and tense exchanges with colleagues.
It was 2010, the federal Race to the Top competition was well under way, and Terrance Carroll, a Democrat who was then the speaker of the House of Representatives, had the task of getting a bill that the state's largest and most powerful teachers' union refused to support through several key committee votes.
Senate Bill 191, which had already passed the Senate, tied evaluations to student achievement, revamped the tenure-granting process, and based teacher placement on factors other than seniority. It was a bitter pill for the Colorado Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
But despite that obstacle, Mr. Carroll, a product of the District of Columbia public schools and a proponent of the bill, was determined to demonstrate a shift within the Democratic Party on education measures often resisted by the party.
"One of the first things I said was, 'We're not going to pass this bill with all Republicans and just one Democratic vote. It doesn't have to be the entire Democratic caucus, but I need eight to 10 votes to come along with me, so it's clear there's movement in the Democratic Party to support education reform,' " recalled Mr. Carroll, who was term-limited out of office in 2011.
The latter group—based in Portland, Ore., but with a presence in 10 states—and its network of local volunteers, plus its connections to other community groups, proved especially pivotal in drumming up backers for the proposal, Mr. Carroll said.
"They were exceptionally helpful," he said. "They organized parents and students and teachers who might have been union teachers, but disagreed with the union's position, to come down and talk to legislators. And that was key, because the teachers' union had hoards of members at the Capitol every day."
If there is a clear sign of the growing influence of a new breed of national education advocacy organizations, it surely lies in their entry into state-level politics. That involvement has advanced the groups' similar policy priorities on such issues as overhauling teacher evaluation and expanding charter schools.
The story of SB 191's passage in Colorado is among the most striking examples, but in just five years, groups such as DFER, Stand for Children, and the more recently launched StudentsFirst have helped shape legislative proposals in statehouse after statehouse.
Although the list is not comprehensive and the details vary by state, their efforts include these examples:
• Stand for Children has lobbied in support of bills revamping teacher evaluation in all 10 states in which it has an office. In several of those states, such as Illinois and Massachusetts, it has had a representative on panels charged with writing regulations or legislation governing teacher evaluations.
• Stand for Children Oregon, in 2008-09, successfully lobbied for funding for a mentoring program for new teachers and worked with other nonprofit organizations on a project to improve teacher professional development. In 2010-11, it supported several bills in a legislative education package, including one that changed the state schools superintendency from an elected to an appointed position.
• DFER has been a power player in New York education politics since 2006, pushing successfully, for example, to raise the state's charter school cap in 2010 to prepare the state to compete in the federal Race to the Top competition, in which it won $700 million.
• The StudentsFirst group spent some $900,000 last year on lobbying in Michigan, including support for a variety of teacher-quality proposals.
Political scientists attribute the groups' state-level successes partly to a rearrangement of political coalitions around education in statehouses, and to a favorable policy climate created by the Obama administration.
The Race to the Top initiative, initially financed through the 2009 federal economic-stimulus legislation, gave Democrats the political cover to push for priorities such as expansion of charter schools, alternative teacher training, and teacher performance evaluations tied in part to students' academic gains—issues that previously had been associated most closely with Republicans.
"These are people who believe strongly in the public school system, but really felt that unless they took it in a quite significantly different direction, it was not going to survive, maintain itself, or improve itself," Lorraine M. McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said about the Obama administration. "And these groups were important in allying with that point of view."
Advocacy can take many forms, ranging from grassroots lobbying, to direct lobbying of legislators, to explicitly political activities such as campaigning. Each of the entities operated by the advocacy organizations is subject to different restrictions under the U.S. tax code and campaign-finance laws.
The groups' lobbying priorities have spanned any number of issues. Take, for example, the Tennessee wing of StudentsFirst. Since opening its doors in 2011, the organization has backed legislation or policies to link teacher evaluations to student performance, including test scores; set higher standards for teacher tenure; lift restrictions on class sizes; and offer private school vouchers for disadvantaged students in academically struggling schools.
Not all of those efforts, such as the class-size and voucher measures, became law. But the group is convinced it's building a reputation as an authoritative voice on school issues at the Statehouse, said Mike Carpenter, the director of StudentsFirst's Tennessee chapter.
"The message is, 'We're here for the long term,' " said Mr. Carpenter, a Republican and a former member of the Shelby County Commission. "We're not here to parachute in for one or two issues and then leave."
The organization's success will be measured by whether it becomes a "go-to organization when people want to know something about education, and education reform," he said. "When legislators start saying, 'Where is StudentsFirst on this issue?' then I'll know we're having an impact."
The Tennessee chapter has eight registered lobbyists, some of them hired on a contract basis, working on its behalf at the Statehouse, including Mr. Carpenter and Michelle A. Rhee, the founder and chief executive officer of the national Students First organization. That's about the same number the Tennessee Education Association says it has promoting its agenda.
These national K-12 advocacy groups are also providing campaign muscle.
"Our approach is look at states, and then within states, to look at the districts where we feel like we can, over time, have a significant impact," said Jonah Edelman, the founder and CEO of Stand for Children. "Elections in those places are sometimes key opportunities for impact, either to sustain a positive direction or shift to a more constructive direction."
One candidate who received Stand for Children's support was Keith Swerdfeger, a construction executive who two years ago ran for the Colorado legislature from House District 47, in the Pueblo area. Mr. Swerdfeger, a Republican, faced Carole Partin, a Democrat and retired middle school teacher, who was also a former president of the Pueblo Education Association, an affiliate of the CEA.
Ms. Partin received support from the CEA and the Colorado affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. But the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children was impressed with the Republican's positions, including his favorable view of SB 191.
Mr. Swerdfeger raised $129,904 during his campaign, outspending Ms. Partin, who collected $78,579. At least $16,000 of Ms. Partin's financial backing came from groups that identified themselves in state campaign-finance records as state teachers' unions or their affiliates. Stand for Children's small-donor committee helped Mr. Swerdfeger counter the union spending by contributing $4,000 to his campaign, the organization confirmed.
But the group's main influence on the race was not financial, Mr. Swerdfeger said. Stand for Children's endorsement bolstered the Republican's message to voters that he supports public schools, he said, despite his opponent's backing from teachers' organizations.
"It put the word out that we were all concerned about kids and building a strong foundation through education," he said.
Ms. Partin did not support SB 191, regarding it as unfair to teachers, a view she said she conveyed in a pre-election interview with representatives of Stand for Children. The Democrat believes she faced long odds in winning election, given the losses her party suffered in Colorado and around the country in 2010. But she also says Stand for Children's support for her opponent had an impact. Mr. Swerdfeger won handily, with 63 percent of the vote to 37 percent for Ms. Partin.
"I didn't realize how well organized they were, what a machine they had," Ms. Partin said. Overall, she felt that she had to fight the perception that she was aligned with the "big, bad teachers' union."
But Kayla McGannon, the director of advocacy for Stand for Children Colorado, said that while backing candidates who supported SB 191 was a "big priority" for the group, it also favored incumbents or challengers who shared the organization's broader views of education policy, not just on teacher effectiveness.
StudentsFirst, like Stand for Children, presents itself as an issue-based nonpartisan group willing to back candidates from both major political parties.
The organization's New Jersey partner, Better Education for New Jersey Kids, for instance, spent some $548,000 last year to help elect two Democrats, Troy Singleton and Gabriela Mosquera, to the state Assembly, campaign-finance records show. The group also supported two Republican candidates, who did not win their races.
The group selected its candidates through questionnaires that asked, among other queries, whether they supported teacher-tenure reform.
"We didn't purposely set out to support two and two like that, but in the end it was a nice representation of our philosophy, which is that education reform should be nonpartisan," said Mike Lilley, the executive director of the New Jersey organization.
Even so, a mix of endorsements across the political aisle can be a delicate issue for lawmakers in an era in which many other policy debates are riven by partisanship. Some state legislators have found the willingness of Stand for Children and StudentsFirst to back candidates based on policy rather than party line unnerving.
"It's a bit of a deal breaker," said one state Democratic lawmaker, who has worked with Stand for Children. "Once you spend to help cost us a seat, you're no longer really in the family." The lawmaker declined to be named, citing his relationship with the group.
Across the states in which Democrats for Education Reform is active, that group—as its name suggests—has supported only Democrats. But it has also faced difficult decisions about whether to endorse candidates when their positions on some issues contrast sharply with the views of donors to the group, according to Joe Williams, DFER's executive director.
Mr. Williams cited the example of one Democratic candidate for state legislature who supported charter schools and other school improvement steps favored by DFER. But the candidate, whom Mr. Williams declined to name, opposed gay marriage, a stance that angered some donors.
Mr. Williams said he was able to persuade some of those donors to back the candidate anyway. "He was an important person to have on our side," he said.
Such advocacy groups increasingly appear to be stepping up to protect candidates who have bucked other constituencies on key policy votes.
Teachers' unions are among the strongest backers of Democrats in state races, and "yes" votes on Colorado's SB 191 carried political consequences for some Democrats in that state. Smarting from the bill's successful passage, CEA affiliates vetted local candidates facing re-election in 2010 based in part on their support for the bill.
"What was good about that process was that a conversation ensued where we talked to those folks about questions we may have had about why the vote took place," said Tony Salazar, the executive director of the CEA.
Ultimately, the unions' affiliates withheld legislative endorsements from six House Democrats and two Senate Democrats facing re-election. The union also withheld contributions from those candidates' re-election bids, campaign-finance records show.
To make up the difference, the DFER group, through its 501(c)4 entity, provided more than $400,000 to independent-expenditure accounts managed by party leaders that were used to support the Democratic incumbents.
"We wanted to make sure there was no political price for those votes," Mr. Williams said.
In Tennessee, one of StudentsFirst's goals is to provide a political firewall of support for legislators who have continued to back a controversial 2010 law that tied teachers' and administrators' evaluations to gains in student achievement, despite vehement criticism from some quarters.
StudentsFirst counted well over a dozen bills that have been introduced this year that it contends would water down the evaluation system in some way, said Mr. Carpenter. So far, he said, StudentsFirst has had a role in helping defeat them all.
Many Tennessee legislators have heard complaints about the law from teachers, administrators, and others in their districts, Mr. Carpenter said. But StudentsFirst has sought to persuade those lawmakers that the public is with them.
"For education reform to happen, you've got to have continuity of leadership," Mr. Carpenter said. Lawmakers who backed the policy may worry that "they stick their necks out, and then there's no one there to support them at election time," he said.
StudentsFirst, he said, is trying to remind those legislators "they're not alone."
Some observers, like Ms. McDonnell of the University of California, ask whether these new-breed groups can keep the same momentum they've had over the past few years. Ideas the groups have supported, such as teacher evaluation tied in part to student performance, have become mainstream in K-12 education, she said. Because of that, those ideas "are being scrutinized, not just politically but by researchers," she said.
"Those kinds of things are going to slow the political momentum down," Ms. McDonnell. "There are implementation glitches that are going to have be fixed. So I just don't see them needing to play the same kind of role."
Tennessee Education Association officials suggest that StudentsFirst has overstated its own influence on school policy debates in that state. The union does not believe that teacher evaluation will be an overriding issue at the polls in 2012, said Al Mance, the TEA's executive director, so much as the overall spate of what he terms "anti-teacher" legislation approved recently by state lawmakers.
Mr. Mance cited a 2011 law that stripped teachers' collective bargaining powers and replaced them with "collaborative conferencing" between groups of educators and school boards. (StudentsFirst said it did not support the law.)
StudentsFirst "can make any claims they want," Mr. Mance said. "The people who get into office in Tennessee are elected by the voters in Tennessee," and the idea that StudentsFirst would have major role in determining those outcomes is "terribly politically naive," he said.
Whatever the future of the new generation of advocacy groups, elected officials who have worked with them say their campaign activities show the strength of their commitment to being serious players in education politics.
"To a large degree, it showed that education reform had grown up," Mr. Carroll, the former Colorado speaker of the House, said of the discussion over Senate Bill 191, "and that these groups were willing to play the political game in a much more substantive way."
Vol. 31, Issue 31, Pages 16-19