As you may know, Education Week recently unveiled a series of stories on what we casually refer to as the "new" education advocacy organizations—groups that are using a variety of different entities and strategies to shape education policy and elect candidates with similar positions.
I hope you've had time to check out the complete set. We worked hard to bring these stories to you because, while we'd mentioned the groups before in the context of some of their legislative efforts, we had not taken a particularly close look at them, their structures, their missions, and their funding. And given the prominent role they're playing in the field and our commitment to bringing you the backstories behind policy, we thought it was an important time to do so.
Many thanks are due, especially to Sean Cavanagh, my co-author on the series, our team who put together the interactive features online, and to all of the people at the groups who took our questions. And a special shout out goes to the Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits, who has broken lots of important news on these groups, and whose work got me thinking about how Education Week might carry this important story further.
As always with a series of this size, reporters have to make decisions about what will be included, and we turned up lots of interesting bits that ultimately didn't make the cut, but are definitely worth following up on. So over the next few days, I'll be putting some of them up on this blog.
One of the questions I've gotten a lot since the stories began running earlier this month is why our series didn't include a close look at some of the other organizations in the education-advocacy space—for instance, 50CAN, or the Education Trust, or state-based advocacy groups. Aren't they important, too?, readers asked. Don't they play a role in this?
As one source noted to me, "without the-on-the ground policy advocacy groups (like the 50CANs, or Advance Illinois, or Fordham-Ohio, or Ed Trust Midwest, or Colorado Succeeds), I think it's hard for these 'air cover' groups to have an impact."
And the folks at EdTrust-Midwest wrote in on their own about our state-based story. They reminded us that they were deeply involved in the passage of Michigan's June 2011 teacher quality package, which included reforms to tenure, evaluation, and layoffs. Among other things, the group developed legislative language for the bills, arranged for national experts to testify to lawmakers, and developed a white paper on teacher evaluation.
These point are well taken. Here's our answer: To keep the scope of the series manageable, we decided to look at groups that met three (admittedly somewhat artificial) criteria. The groups had to be involved across several states. They had to be focused specifically on a variety of policy changes, not just increased school funding or only on charter schools. And finally, they had to have set up political organizations that exclusively focused on campaign work, not just 501(c)4s, which can do campaigning only as a secondary activity.
It's worth making a special note of the 50CAN group, which has grown and expanded its activities significantly over the past few months. At the time we began reporting, it was still a 501(c)3, meaning it could engage in a limited amount of lobbying, but not in campaigns. But in late January, it launched its 501(c)4 wing, which lets it enter the campaign arena. 50CAN now operates in the states of Rhode Island, Minnesota, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. It's hoping to bring on two more states, North Carolina and New Jersey, by the fall. (ConnCAN, the body that incubated 50CAN and that works exclusively in that state, also has its own 501(c)3 and (c)4. Its staff collaborates with 50CAN's staff.)
Marc Porter Magee, the founder and president of 50CAN, told me that the group's time in Connecticut has shaped how it approaches advocacy: "We spent seven years working in one state with no pretensions to be national," he said. "Now we're trying to help bring this to states. It's really a network of state campaigns."
In each state, the group has an advisory body, works with other "strategic partners" or state-based organizations, and also tries to reach out to parents and citizens. Magee said its organizing is not as sophisticated as Stand For Children's, but it has between 2,000 to 10,000 citizens in each state who have signed up to receive its communications.
And why no political action committees yet? "We know that to change the direction of new state policy implementation we need to be really good at research and communications and mobilization and in the amount of time we spend on lobbying we need to be really good at lobbying too, and that's a real challenge if you want to get it right," Magee said. "To also be really good in the world of elections and candidates and donations is a fairly big undertaking, with some downsides obviously, because then you're crossing the threshold into partisan politics, and we work really hard to pull both parties together. That isn't to say that at some point we might not be interested in PAC work, but we've been making a lot of progress with this approach."
Also worth reading is Drew University Associate Professor Patrick McGuinn's piece in Education Next. He provides more context, and examines the work of the PIENetwork, a group that helps bring together a number of these advocacy groups and other related supporters.
His article makes the important point that despite similarities, these groups share some key differences, for example, in the degree to which they engage in grassroots organizing. They are not monolithic, despite some policy similarities.
McGuinn also breaks the interesting news that some of the groups' representatives meet periodically in Washington to plan, and refer to themselves as the "Fight Club." Names like these seem to proliferate in our field. Back in 2007, when it looked like No Child Left Behind might get reauthorized, a bunch of groups had similar meetings on strategy to preserve the law's core accountability features.
They called it the "NCLB War Room."