School & District Management

Leadership, Political Winds Buffet Education Advocacy Groups

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 25, 2014 7 min read
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Michelle Rhee’s departure as the leader of StudentsFirst—the combative national K-12 advocacy organization she started less than four years ago—could represent a significant shift in the environment for similar groups as they balance their broader profiles with local advocacy and coalition-building.

Ms. Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, was perhaps the most high-profile and controversial champion of policies that ranged from increasing the presence of charter schools to altering hiring and firing policies for teachers.

Her departure from StudentsFirst, announced Aug. 13, comes as kindred organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (known as 50CAN), and Stand for Children face complex political and policy challenges in states. These groups, which have grown in prominence in a number of states, particularly since 2008, are dealing with pushback from traditional education interest groups.

Michelle Rhee: The often polarizing founder of StudentsFirst steps off the organization’s stage.

They also face a tough balancing act: how to deepen their state networks, expand nationally, and continue to lobby for key priorities like the Common Core State Standards and new accountability measures.

The key question for the state affiliates is whether they are “more embedded in a state, more home-grown,” or more attached to a national umbrella organization, said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

“Nobody has studied that: what predicts where these groups decide to locate,” Mr. Manna said. “Why do you go to a certain state? What’s the calculus that leads you to set up shop?”

But Robin Hiller, the executive director of the Tuscon, Ariz.-based Network for Public Education, which lobbies against what it calls corporate education reform policies that hurt schools, said more of the general public is getting wise to what she sees as these groups’ true intentions.

“That grass-roots resistance is very well-informed,” Ms. Hiller said. Opponents “are bringing these things up in state legislatures. They’re saying ... ‘this bill won’t help children.’ ” Ms. Hiller said.

Narrower and Deeper?

StudentsFirst, which began in 2010 and has 13 state-level affiliates, lobbies elected officials to end seniority-based layoffs for teachers, and to establish stronger mayoral and state control over schools, among other priorities. The Sacramento-based group also donates to campaigns in a large number of states. Although Ms. Rhee identifies herself as a Democrat, StudentsFirst directed campaign contributions largely to Republican candidates in states like Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee.

A month before Ms. Rhee announced she was stepping away from StudentsFirst to support her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the group decided to largely shut down its affiliates in Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, and Minnesota. The decision cut the number of the organization’s active state affiliates by nearly a third from its peak of 18. When she announced the formation of StudentsFirst, she set a goal of raising $1 billion for the organization, a goal it has not come close to meeting so far.

At the same time, StudentsFirst is not closing up shop. Its plans to expand its staff in Alabama and Georgia, for example, will strengthen the group’s connections to local leaders and advocates, said Francisco Castillo, who spoke on behalf of the group when Ms. Rhee was asked for comment.

Mr. Castillo declined to address the question of whether StudentsFirst was looking for a new president of day-to-day operations with a relatively low profile, unlike Ms. Rhee.

“The fact that Michelle isn’t staying around doesn’t mean very much. If anything, it means she’s done her job,” said RiShawn Biddle, the editor of the “Dropout Nation” website who is also a consultant for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-school choice group. “Starting an organization, bringing attention to important issues in public education—that’s what she’s good at.”

Seeking Allies

StudentsFirst alone has contributed to much of the growth in state-based advocacy groups under national umbrella organizations in recent years. From 2009 through this year, 27 state affiliates of national K-12 advocacy organizations were founded, according to a report released in May by Mr. Manna and Susan Moffitt, a professor of political science at Brown University. From 1997 to 2007, by contrast, only eight such affiliates were started.

National Players

Four of the largest national K-12 advocacy organizations with state level affiliates are 50CAN, Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst. They vary in scope and policy priorities.

50CAN: The group—which stands for the “50-State Campaign for Achievement Now”—was founded in 2010 and now has seven state affiliates. (ConnCAN, another K-12 advocacy group that works in Connecticut, is organizationally independent from 50CAN but participates in the CAN network.) Through its state affiliates, it supports and claims “wins” on state laws passed in 2014 expanding early education in Maryland, increasing pay for teachers in North Carolina, and changing teacher layoff notifications in Rhode Island.

Democrats for Education Reform: Founded in 2007, the group, also known as DFER, operates in 13 states. Along with the other three groups, DFER is part of the Policy Innovators in Education Network, a Minneapolis-based group that focuses on strategies for improving or replacing low-performing schools and developing “powerful accountability policies” among other priorities. DFER operates as a political action committee.

Stand For Children: The oldest of the four organizations, Stand for Children was founded in 1996 and operates in 11 states, including Arizona, Indiana, and Oregon. Among recent victories, Stand for Children’s Washington affiliate counts its successful fight to stop core classes for being eligible for waivers from high school diploma requirements.

StudentsFirst: Begun in 2010 by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, until recently StudentsFirst had the largest number of state affiliates (18) of the four groups, but has since scaled down to 13. It group has put out two editions of a state policy report card that ranked states based on factors such as how friendly they were to charter schools. Ms. Rhee announced Aug. 13 that she was leaving her position as the group’s CEO.

Source: EducationWeek

Marc Porter Magee, the founder and president of 50CAN, said he still considers the state K-12 advocacy world to be a small one, and that his group welcomes allies like StudentsFirst. 50CAN began the same year as StudentsFirst and has seven state affiliates. It pushes for expanded early education, alternative teacher certification, and the use of test scores in teacher evaluation.

Mr. Magee stressed he wants the national 50CAN office to make local leaders the face of the organization. To encourage this, 50CAN started a year-long fellowship program this year where people can train for education advocacy work as state leaders of 50CAN affiliates or other groups, adding that he’s tried to plan his group’s growth in the states in a “quieter, smaller” way compared to StudentsFirst.

“We’ve sort of intentionally approached it in the other direction,” Mr. Magee said.

DFER’s Choices

The contentious race for California state superintendent illustrates the tricky political and policy landscape many advocacy groups face. Incumbent Tom Torlakson, who has the vigorous support of teachers’ unions, and Marshall Tuck, who wants to reduce the power of those unions, have taken widely different positions on regulatory and labor issues. The race is nonpartisan, but both say they are Democrats.

The race would seem to be tailor-made for vigorous involvement by DFER’s California chapter, given that the group is critical of unions in many policy areas and backs Mr. Tuck’s approach of reducing some regulatory constraints on schools. In addition, Steve Barr, the group’s new chairman appointed last month, used to work with Mr. Tuck at Green Dot Public Schools, a network of charter schools Mr. Barr founded.

But Mr. Barr has decided that DFER California will officially sit out the rest of the campaign. (The national organization did name Mr. Tuck as a “Reformer of the Month” in May.)

Mr. Barr has donated money to Mr. Tuck on a personal basis (a total of $1,000 according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a Helena, Mont.-based group that tracks state campaign finance) and plans to shoot a video supporting his candidacy. But he said that he wants the state chapter of DFER to avoid scrapping with opponents over what he called “shiny rock issues.” He cited as examples the recent Vergara v. State of California lawsuit, in which a judge ruled in June that California’s tenure law creates inequitable conditions and is therefore unconstitutional, and electoral politics that he says many parents don’t pay attention to when it comes to helping schools.

“Let’s build some coalitions, which is what a Democratic Party should do,” he said. “There are organizations that you can fund that won’t just launch rockets at each other.”

In this vein, Lea Crusey, who left StudentsFirst in 2013 to become the deputy director of the national DFER group, notes that DFER’s Colorado chapter helped teachers’ unions campaign for a state constitutional amendment last year to dramatically boost K-12 spending. “We’re really careful not to hand our state directors a playbook,” she said.

Political Involvement

None of that means that such groups have abandoned political campaigns.

Stand for Children, for example, an advocacy group with national offices in Boston and Portland, Ore., and 10 state-level affiliates, had donated $277,000 to 66 candidates for the Illinois Legislature alone for the 2014 election as of last week, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

DFER has donated to 12 candidates for the New York Legislature in 2014, as well as to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with teachers’ unions in the state. Those donations have totaled $84,000, the institute reported.

Stand for Children’s Louisiana chapter, meanwhile, is battling an erstwhile ally over a nationally controversial issue.

On the one hand, the group has praised a new teacher-evaluation law signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. But it has fought efforts by Gov. Jindal to end the state’s involvement with both the common core and the associated tests.

Rayne Martin, the Louisiana chapter’s executive director, stressed that a few dozen committed activists trained over a two-year period have proven instrumental in defending the common core.

“If the advocacy hadn’t included as many tactical avenues as it did, I think we would be in a different place than we are right now,” Ms. Martin said.

And, sometimes, a group’s work extends beyond advocacy to implementation. Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman highlights the group’s monitoring of how teacher evaluations in Massachusetts are being collectively bargained at the local level following state policy changes approved in 2012. The group’s oversight covers teacher training, data, and public engagement and is “painstaking, detailed work, but critical,” he said.

“We don’t go here and go there for this campaign, and then leave,” Mr. Edelman said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Leadership, Political Winds Buffet Advocacy Groups

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