Education Advocacy Organizations: An Overview

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.


The attention they deserve is the attention to the disservice they are doing to public education by vilifying teachers and public schools as the reason for the achievement gap, which we know exists due to family issues, not schools.

But, Ken, you wouldn't mention that because you and Matt don't want to take an actual stand.

DFER is Democratic in name only. These are are group of 1 percenters, the oligarchs (Whitney Tilson et al) who are trying to privatize our public schools.

Rhee is a hack who co-taught for a couple years, became a quitter as chancellor on DC, and there are questions as to her efficacy, judgement and truth-telling.

These groups are only strong when we talk about them as if they have a value. They don't. They remove value. They are parasites.

Get on board, guys.

Why don't you guys get on board?


Sons of b-----s. All of them. They wouldn't last one day in the classroom. I don't really care anymore how much money each group has; they can shove it all up their a--. The truest of sad parts, however, is why are we still giving them attention? Why should we care what they say? Science and history will clarify their stupidity one day, just as it did for leeches and witches.

What a stupid, sick joke being played here.
Emphasis on played.

Henry C. Hale
National Board Certified Teacher


Both Matt's and Ken's work is very valuable, and I do not agree that they haven't "taken a stand." I can't tell you how many times I've referred back to this blog; Matt and Bruce Baker are the Jordan and Pippin of research on reforminess (I won't say who is who). Ken has done and continues to do great work.

Having said that: I can understand TFT's frustration.

Matt and I have gone back and forth a couple of times on the appropriateness of discussing the motivations of the reformers. I respect his decision to focus on policy; I understand a position of objectivity is valuable. But the other side is not playing his way, and they are winning. We have to acknowledge this.

They are pushing an agenda that has no basis in fact, logic, or known research; why? Why would they insist on advocating for systems of teacher evaluations based largely on standardized testing that is contradicted by all the evidence? Why are they pushing for compensation and layoff decisions to be made with instruments that are completely inappropriate to the job? Why are they selling a set of prescriptions to cure a diagnosis that is totally flawed?

Isn't it germane to ask? Can we possibly win this war - and make no mistake, that's exactly how the reformers see it - without engaging these people on their motivations?

Rhee received $50 million (according to Brill) from Rupert Murdoch, who has made no secret of his desire to get into the education sector. Jonah Edelman of SFC gathered together patrons of immense wealth with the expressed (well, expressed when he thought no one was taping him) purpose of breaking the backs of the Illinois teachers unions. Hedge fund managers throw money around Albany to start more charters as Juan Gonzales reports that they are making money through a new markets tax credit funding these very same charters.

And that's all aside from the very real concern that "reform" is a distraction from addressing the massive income inequity in this country that has led to chronic poverty.

This is serious stuff, and it is absolutely relevant to the discussion at hand. I don't see how anything changes without a frank discussion about these issues.

Now, does everyone have to come along for the ride? No, not necessarily; we can all play different roles. Matt and Ken are wonks; this world needs wonks, especially with consciences like they do. We need them to show us that what these people are pushing is not justified by the evidence.

But that will not be enough.


Fair enough, Jersey.

But these guys are the namesake of Albert, who is rolling around in his grave watching the reformers co-opt his ideas and pervert them for the benefit of the current oligarchy that needs a good kick in the face or five.

I refer to Matt often too, as he is good at picking apart studies and making sense for those of us who suffer from researchitis (the desire to have others interpret research for me).

But to consistently put out wonkful work without making that work actually work in a particular direction, given the namesake, is my complaint.

Shankerblog could wield more power and be more persuasive if they could pepper their analysis with some real world haranguing and directed ass-kicking. Maybe not like me, but something.

I am not the first person to mention this here at Shankerblog.

I love Matt and I like Ken, though I think they both suffer from milquetoastitis.