Study of K-12 Advocacy Groups Shows Policy World Has ‘Changed Dramatically’

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 05, 2015 3 min read
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The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution has released a study of how education advocacy groups work, or don’t work, by examining their efforts around three bills related to school choice in Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

“Measuring and Understanding Education Advocacy” was written by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst at Brookings and David Stuit, Claire Graves, and Lauren Shaw at Basis Policy Research. Using a survey of dozens of legislators and “policy insiders” in the three states, the report attempts to discern the actual influence of groups like teachers’ unions, school boards associations, and groups supporting school choice versus their perceived influence. The study uses a “placebo” by asking the legislators and policymakers about a non-existent advocacy group, and then uses the perceived influence of that placebo as a baseline to measure the actual influence of these groups.

The authors also studied the strategies and tactics of these groups to determine how, and how early, they tried to influence the legislative process. These included building and mobilizing grassroots support, as well as actually swaying state legislators. The three bills in question aimed to expand the footprint of charter schools or vouchers by various means.

Brookings quantified the influence of “pro” groups, or those supporting a bill, and “anti” groups. You can see the results of their efforts below. Essentially, “pro” groups beat out “anti” groups on the influence scale in two of the three states, and the influence of “anti” groups in two states was not all that much higher than the perceived or “placebo” influence for such groups.

Brookings also broke down the views of groups’ influence among legislators versus political insiders, and in what stage of the process people believed various groups were most influential. It’s worth noting that all three of these states featured GOP governors and legislatures controlled by Republicans at the time the study was conducted. Response rates to the study’s questions also varied markedly, with legislators tending to respond at notably lower rates than insiders.

Here are some other highlights from the study:

• Different states present different challenges for advocacy groups, and an approach that works in one state may fail in another. For example, it can make a difference for these advocacy groups who exactly is pushing the legislation.

• Perhaps not surprisingly, when a proposed policy failed, groups opposing the policy were credited with more influence than the policy’s supporters. So “perceived influence closely tracks outcomes,” as the report states.

• Discord among like-minded groups wasn’t unheard of, and it naturally didn’t help their cause: “Contradictory messaging, or publicly visible discord, among advocacy organizations that appear to be part of the same pro-legislation team provide openings that opponents exploit in their own advocacy efforts.”

In an Internet chat discussing the report, Whitehurst described how “the world has changed dramatically” over the last 15 years, as major players in education policy have begun paying as much attention to political advocacy as to research.

The bills in Louisiana and Tennessee were mainly driven by governors’ offices, Whitehurst noted, while in North Carolina legislators were the dominant force behind the legislation. And he said that despite the above chart that grouped “pro” and “anti” groups together, it would be a mistake to cleanly sort them on two distinct sides.

On at least one occasion in North Carolina, for example, the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association differed on a key portion of the bill in question. And a group in Louisiana appeared predominantly concerned with coordinating the advocacy work of other groups, Whitehurst said. (Neither he nor the report identified which Louisiana group this was).

“There are different goals for the content of the legislation and different players involved,” Whitehurst said.

On two occasions over the past several months, I’ve done broad stories examining the status of several K-12 advocacy groups when Michelle Rhee and Jeb Bush left their posts at StudentsFirst and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, respectively. StudentsFirst is highlighted in the report, but the foundation Bush started is not.

Read the full report below:

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.