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How Will Education Groups' State-Level Endorsements Fare?

There are big headlines today about how President Barack Obama has become the first presidential candidate to raise $1 billion in a campaign, but there's another big number in politics this year to keep in mind: 6,004. That's the number of state legislative seats that are up for election in 2012, as I've written about previously. That's roughly four out of every five seats in the entire U.S., and education advocacy groups are paying close attention, proving that a lot of energy is taking place below the hype and angst of the White House race.

For example, the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based advocacy group whose political activities include lobbying for vouchers and supporting GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, today released its endorsements of candidates, state superintendents, and ballot initiatives in eight states. And for some time, Students First has had a list of various state-level candidates it's backing, such as in Tennessee.

Just using the Volunteer State as an example, there's significant overlap between the AFC and Students First endorsement lists for the state legislature. I counted 10 candidates who received endorsements from both groups. (AFC is endorsing 19 candidates for the statehouse in Tennessee, while Students First is endorsing 17 candidates.) Some of the overlapping candidates are incumbents, like Sen. Dolores Gresham, the Republican chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee, who receives Students First's endorsement because she has "championed reforming out-dated tenure laws, expanding access to charter schools," and other measure related to alternative pathways for teachers. But seven of the endorsed candidates are not already in office, and a few are small-business owners, showing the group isn't afraid to back non-entrenched politicians.

What do these endorsements mean? Take Steve Dickerson, another Republican candidate in Tennessee for state Senate to get the nod from both groups. According to campaign finance records at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Dickerson has received campaign contributions both from Students First's PAC in Tennessee (for $10,000), and from the Tennessee branch of AFC ($2,500). Dickerson has reportedly raised $473,000 in his race, so the overall amount from those two groups represents only 2.6 percent of his total. But both groups make it into his top-20 list of campaign contributors by total dollar amount. In a state Senate race, that kind of cash can make an impact.

Education advocates, especially those pushing for "reform" in schools, often say how bipartisan their work is. How true is that statement here? In Tennessee, $117,500 of Students First's contributions (95 percent of its total) have gone to Republicans, not surprising in a GOP-leaning state, while 90 percent of the Tennessee affiliate of AFC's contributions have gone to GOP candidates. Moving to states with less pure GOP leanings, in Wisconsin, all six of AFC endorsed candidates are in the GOP, and all 16 of Students First's endorsed candidates in Florida are Republicans (also, perhaps, not surprising, since the GOP controls both the statehouse and the governor's office, even though it's a battleground state in the presidential race). In Michigan, only one of Students First's endorsements is for a Democrat, but in Pennsylvania, three out of 11 of its endorsed candidates are Democrats.

Students First is involved in state races in seven states, and like AFC is working in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee.(The AFC's Florida affiliate doesn't officially endorse candidates, but does list candidates who support its view on school choice.)

So the point is that there's going to be a very long and important electoral scorecard for groups like AFC and Students First that has nothing to do with whether Obama or Mitt Romney win on Nov. 6. And I haven't even touched on union-backed candidates yet: In Ohio, where both AFC and Students First are in the fray, the Ohio Education Association is the number one total contributor to state House of Representatives races, and the number two contributor in state Senate contests.

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