Federal

Wealthy Democrats Seek Policy Influence

By Michelle R. Davis — August 30, 2005 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A new effort by wealthy Democrats to create and finance a network of think tanks to rival similar institutions on the political right will include efforts to nurture what backers consider progressive ideas and programs for education.

The Democracy Alliance has attracted more than 80 donors, each pledging at least $1 million over five years to help pay for a variety of left-leaning think tanks. The goal is to cultivate a robust web of organizations that will foster progressive ideas in such areas as economics, health care, foreign policy, and education, said Rob Stein, a veteran Democratic strategist and the founder of the alliance, based in Arlington, Va.

“This is a simple concept,” Mr. Stein said in an interview this month. “We want to create a more efficient marketplace for funding progressive organizations.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Democrats say the effort could alter the current public discourse on education, which some say is being framed by Republicans. Discussions of charter schools, private school vouchers, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act—which don’t necessarily have their political and philosophical origins in the GOP—are being influenced in large part by conservative thinkers, some observers say.

“We haven’t really, as progressives, been able to articulate particularly dramatic and important ideas, and have allowed the right to gain a foothold in this debate [over education],” said Steven M. Gluckstern, a former school district superintendent in Colorado who went on to a successful business career in reinsurance, among other ventures, and is now the board chairman of the Democracy Alliance. “We want a bigger megaphone and would like to see the discussion more balanced.”

Creating a Tool Box

Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democrat Network, a political-advocacy group that helped establish the alliance, said Democratic ideas continue to resonate with at least 49 percent of Americans, according to 2004 election results.

“The other side has more tools than we do, and we need to develop them,” he said.

Mr. Stein studied how conservatives built a powerful network outside of government. In examining 19 think tanks on the right, he concluded that they had something Democratic-leaning institutions didn’t: significant and stable financing. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation are flush with cash from donors and often serve as a home base for influential conservative thinkers.

Out of that study, the Democracy Alliance was born in January. The group itself won’t be researching issues or thinking up new policy proposals. Its role, rather, is to act as a conduit to flow money to other organizations, Mr. Stein said.

The alliance will hold conferences twice a year, starting this fall, where invited groups will pitch their ideas. Donors will decide what projects they will fund.

“We will present to our partners existing groups that want to go to the next level, as well as innovative new organizations,” Mr. Stein said.

With a board that includes several people either with backgrounds working in education or who have foundations with a strong education focus, education seems likely to get a lot of attention.

Early in his career, Mr. Gluckstern, 54, the Democracy Alliance chairman, was a teacher, the principal of the largest English school in Iran, and, at age 29, the superintendent of the Telluride, Colo., school district, which now has 600 students. Later, he made a fortune in reinsurance and as an investment banker and is now retired.

“I think education is the single most important issue facing this country,” he said in an interview. “I rank it up there with national security. The state of our public schools in this country… is an embarrassment.”

Another board member is Ann S. Bowers, the chairwoman of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Noyce Foundation and the widow of Robert Noyce, the co-founder of the technology giant Intel Corp. The foundation helps foster science and technology learning in grades K-12.

Donors, called members, include billionaire George Soros and the movie director Rob Reiner, who has been an activist on early child-care and education issues.

Vested Interests?

The Democracy Alliance’s creators hope the new network can help filter progressive ideas for education into the American consciousness. The idea of what is “progressive” however, may depend on whom one asks.

To Mr. Gluckstern, that word indicates forward-thinking concepts that move the debate over schools ahead, like smaller high schools and tailoring reading materials to students’ interests.

Those ideas, he said, are “different to me than the idea that the way we make education better is by testing every student every year and by failing students who don’t pass the test,” he said.

Others may believe differently, he said.

Some observers have suggested that Republicans have largely dominated the education debate, while Democrats respond. One example is charter schools, said Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of Education Sector, a new think tank, who worked on domestic-policy issues in the Clinton White House. Democrats—most notably, President Clinton—supported the idea early on, but conservatives have taken ownership of the concept as part of their “same solution to every problem—choice,” Mr. Rotherham said.

See Also

Robert Gordon, who was the domestic-policy director for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and is now a senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said creation of a structure for nurturing Democratic ideas is critical. The center, one of the groups the Democracy Alliance is looking to finance, co-sponsored a report on education released last week.

“There are all these great innovators in the educational world, and they are politically progressive, but they often feel quite alienated from the Democratic Party,” Mr. Gordon said.

Jennifer A. Marshall, the director of domestic-policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, one of the country’s most prominent conservative think tanks, said progressives will have to grapple with the influential teachers’ unions, which traditionally have been allied with the Democratic Party and have at times resisted changes in the education system.

“It will be interesting to watch how … they’ll treat the powerful agenda of the teachers’ unions, and how they’ll deal with a more entrepreneurial, child-centered focus,” Ms. Marshall said of the Democracy Alliance’s backers.

Working with the unions is going to be a challenge, if progressives want to push the envelope with new ideas in education, said Mr. Rotherham.

“No one wants to get to the heart of the issue, because it’s difficult to do without displacing some vested interests,” he said.

John C. Stocks, the deputy executive director of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, said that won’t be a problem, at least where the NEA is concerned, as long as those working on education issues take practitioners into account.

“We need to have a full, open, and honest debate about what’s necessary to improve student achievement in America in order to compete globally,” said Mr. Stocks. “The NEA is fully prepared to do that.”

Mr. Rosenberg, of the New Democrat Network, said he anticipates a lot of interest by donors in funding projects or organizations that look at education in a global context.

“There is going to have to be a radical rethinking of the way we give our children the tools to succeed,” he said. “We’re not doing enough in this vastly complicated world.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal What’s Behind the Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary
When reintroduced in Congress, a bill to raise teacher salaries will include money to account for regional cost differences.
5 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jason Redmond/AP
Federal Teachers Shouldn't Have to Drive Ubers on the Side, Education Secretary Says
In a speech on priorities for the year, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said teachers should be paid competitive salaries.
5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona delivers a speech during the “Raise the Bar: Lead the World” event in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, 2023.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal A Chaotic Start to a New Congress: What Educators Need to Know
A new slate of lawmakers will have the chance to influence federal education policy in the 118th Congress.
4 min read
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the House floor after the first vote for House Speaker when he did not receive enough votes to be elected during opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023, in Washington.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 following the first round of voting for House Speaker. McCarthy fell short of enough votes to be elected speaker in three rounds of voting on opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Federal Historic Changes to Title IX and School Safety Funding: How 2022 Shaped K-12 Policy
Federal lawmakers sought to make Title IX more inclusive, respond to school shootings, and crack down on corrupt charter schools.
6 min read
Revelers march down Fifth Avenue during the annual NYC Pride March, Sunday, June 26, 2022, in New York.
Revelers march down Fifth Avenue during New York City's annual Pride March in June. Proposed changes to Title IX would explicitly protect students from discrimination based on their gender identity or sexuality.
Mary Altaffer/AP