Wealthy Democrats Seek Policy Influence

By Michelle R. Davis — August 30, 2005 6 min read
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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.”


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.”


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