Our guest author today is Ken Libby, a graduate student studying educational foundations, policy and practice at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Education advocacy organizations (EAOs) come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some focus on specific issues (e.g. human capital decisions, forms of school choice, class size) while others approach policy more broadly (e.g. changing policy environments, membership decisions). Proponents of these organizations claim they exist, at least in part, to provide a counterbalance to various other powerful interest groups.
In just the past few years, Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), 50CAN, and StudentsFirst have emerged as well-organized, well-funded groups capable of influencing education policy. While these four groups support some of the same legislation - most notably teacher evaluations based in part on test scores and the expansion of school choice - each group has some distinct characteristics that are worth noting.
One thing’s for sure: The proliferation of EAOs, especially during the past five or six years, is playing a critical role in certain education policy decisions and discussions. They are not, contrary to some of the rhetoric, dominating powerhouses, but they aren’t paper tigers either.
One of the most prominent examples of an EAO is 50CAN, a collection of state-based advocacy organizations modeled after ConnCAN, which operated exclusively in Connecticut. ConnCAN was founded on “the fundamental belief that closing the achievement gap requires not only innovative educational models, but also issue-based advocacy that secures systemic change." 50CAN aims to have a presence in 25 states by 2015.
DFER is a sometimes described as a "guerrilla movement" within the Democratic Party, one intended to build support for school choice and tougher teacher evaluations (especially those based on test scores). Backed largely by New York City hedge fund managers, DFER has played a significant role in NYC education politics, influenced state and federal policymakers, and proved to be a significant force, at least at times, in the education policy arena. Their work extends into Colorado, California, Rhode Island, Indiana, Washington and a number of other states.
Unlike most left-leaning organizations, DFER sometimes supports vouchers or tuition tax credits, but, unlike right-leaning advocates, does not support the elimination of collective bargaining (see here).
As noted earlier, Stand for Children (“Stand”) has been around much longer than 50CAN and DFER. It is, however, important to keep in mind that Stand's policy platform, especially relating to education, has shifted a great deal in the past few years. Rather than focusing on school funding and other school-related issues as they previously did, Stand is beginning to concentrate more of its efforts on teacher evaluations and human capital decisions (though they still support more funding for schools, in general).
The organization played an important role in the passage of recent teacher evaluation bills in both Colorado and Illinois. All indications point to Stand pursuing similar changes in other states in the coming years.
The most high-profile education advocacy organization is also the newest: Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst. Despite existing for less than a year, the organization currently operates in ten states. While DFER and Stand have generated controversy at various times (DFER for shaking things up in the Democratic Party and Stand for the CEO's comments on their work in Illinois), StudentsFirst generates the most controversy for the organization's support of vouchers, test-based accountability for teachers and schools, limits to or elimination of collective bargaining, and changes to human capital decisions.
With a goal of raising $1 billion within five years, StudentsFirst will undoubtedly play a significant role in education reform. In just the past year, StudentsFirst claims to have "led the effort to reform laws in seven states*," a rather impressive record for such a young organization.
While an infusion of philanthropic dollars into this sector helps explain some of the growth of these organizations, changes at the federal and state level - including Race to the Top and NCLB waivers - have further emboldened these organizations.
The reason is that education policy decision making, which was long the purview of localities, is, in more and more places, being carried out at the state level. Rather than attempting to influence policy on a district-by-district basis as they have in the past, advocacy organizations are increasing able to concentrate their resources at state legislatures. Furthermore, while this brief discussion has focused on just a small handful of the most prominent EAOs, there are hundreds of them in operation, and this number promises to grow.
So, no matter your opinion of the policy positions among these advocacy organizations, their current role – and the likelihood that it will further expand with the continuation of federal competitive grant programs and ongoing fundraising - deserves attention.
- Ken Libby
* According to a recent StudentsFirst email and a recent Facebook post.