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America's Education Reform Lobby Makes Its Presence Known At The Voting Booth

Education Reform Groups Elections Michelle Rhee

First Posted: 11/22/2011 3:55 pm Updated: 11/23/2011 8:27 am

Meet the new education lobby.

It's ambitious, expansive and, in some cases, modeling itself after sprawling single-issue lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association and AARP. The groups, which have in large part been created by hedge fund managers and lapsed government officials, count political operatives inside state legislatures and even the Democratic National Committee among their ranks. And they're using the power of their fundraisers' purses and sophisticated messaging outfits to push their agendas in local and school-board elections across the country.

"We've been trying to win this battle by blogging and making compelling arguments," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports charter schools, accountability and tough teacher evaluations.

"That dynamic is changing now," said Petrilli, who used to work at the Education Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

These newer groups' brand of education reform is data driven and accountability focused: They're advocating for stricter teacher evaluations that take student student performance on standardized tests into consideration; merit pay for teachers; better professional development for teachers; and the elimination or fundamental reworking of teacher tenure.

And unlike many of unions' more established foes, the new groups don't bill themselves as right-wing or Republican. Until recently, most education-focused campaign spending not coming from teachers unions has been delivered by groups such as the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, both of which emphasize the use of public money to fund private schools with vouchers.

And these newer groups have started to affect decisions at the polls across the country.

Two of the central reform groups, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children, flexed their muscle in a Denver School Board election earlier this month. The two groups deployed campaign workers and together spent over $150,000 on the race, pushing through a majority that supports their favored reforms such as charter schools and closing down failing schools and backs the tenure of Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg.

In Denver, the influx of new money didn't go over well with unions, which opposed the school closures and the groups' broader ideology.

"You have DFER, Stand for Children, and you have loosely a couple of other groups out there that can write checks of tens of thousands of dollars," said Henry Roman, president of Denver's teachers union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. "It's becoming more and more high-stakes."

The same pattern has played out nationally.

In New Jersey, StudentsFirst, a new reform group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $400,000 on two successful Democratic legislature candidates through its local arm Better Education 4 Kids New Jersey, a group recently founded by hedge fund managers that backs Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's education agenda.

Another organization, Stand for Children, made a splash last year after it pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the war chests of Illinois state candidates who supported their reform agenda. Their backing helped nudged the passage of a tenure-reform bill in the state.

And in Houston, the reform-minded candidates Stand for Children had endorsed won the school-board race early in November.

Stand for Children, co-founded in 1996 by Jonah Edelman, the son of Children's Defense Fund head and former Martin Luther King, Jr. aide Marian Wright Edelman, initially advocated for education funding and broader child-support programs.

But in the last few years, the group has shifted tactics, and it's now pushing a more specific reform agenda by organizing families in school districts it wants to change.

"We had to work on improving the system, transforming the system of education," Edelman said.

And some of the newer players have ambitions to play far bigger roles soon -- especially during next year's election season.

Edelman said Stand for Children, for one, aims to have 20 state affiliates by 2015. It currently has nine local operations, including ones in Arizona, Oregon and Tennessee.

StudentsFirst aims to raise $1 billion over five years, according to Hari Sevugan, StudentsFirst's vice president of communications.

"Our policy agenda focuses on state houses," said Tim Melton, a former Democratic state legislator in Michigan who recently began working as StudentsFirst's national legislative director. "We're trying to create an environment for change at the state level."

This year, in addition to supporting the two New Jersey candidates, StudentsFirst opposed the recall of Michigan state Republican Rep. Paul Scott.

Scott lost the union-backed campaign, but Sevugan said that Scott's increasing support in the polls showed that "our message is a winning message."

StudentsFirst's campaign expenditures are bound to grow next year, but Melton said it is too soon for him to specify which elections the group will play in. It will soon embark on an "expansive candidate search," he said.

Melton stressed that StudentsFirst is a single-issue group. "We support candidates that have positions on other issues we don't support," he said.

DFER similarly works nationally -- but unlike StudentsFirst, it pushes for reforms within the Democratic party.

"This was a relatively light election season for us," said Joe Williams, DFER's executive director. This year, DFER's donors put about $50,000 into Colorado's Proposition 103, a tax increase that would have sent about $2.9 billion to education, which didn't pass. DFER spent about the same amount in Denver's school board races. Next year, Williams said, DFER plans to spend more.

DFER operates by linking its donors with specific candidates. "We have to tell a compelling story about these candidates," Williams said.

And the new money has put teachers unions, historically the biggest political spenders in education debates, on the defensive.

"You're seeing more of a ramp-up in some organizations because of the kind of untraceable spending that is allowable," said Karen White, political director of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

Many unions see the influx of cash as an attack on teachers. "The debate has been hijacked by a very small section trying to find an easy group to blame," said Roman. His union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, spent $150,000 on the elections in its district. "We're trying to eliminate this myth that there's this horrible group out there, the union, that doesn't care about anyone but themselves."

White said her union has long focused on local elections. "We are focused on making sure that educators have their voice. The attacks are not about budgets or policy decisions. They're blatant political attacks," White said. "What's new for us is these big donors are getting more and more involved in local elections."

But White remained hopeful about unions' influence. As an example, she pointed to this month's Wake County, N.C., school board race, where the local union won back control despite heavy funding from outside groups.

StudentsFirst's Sevugan said he likened StudentsFirst to prominent single-issue groups like AARP or the NRA -- and in terms of effectiveness, it aspires to match the unions whose ideology it often fights. "The [American Federation of Teachers] and the [National Education Association] have been very effective," he said. "They poured billions of dollars into elections. Candidates are very mindful of how the AFT and the NEA feel about certain issues."

But these newer groups aren't always working against union candidates.

DFER often supports the same candidates as the unions. "When we're not, it requires a lot more work to raise resources," Williams said.

If these groups' resources keep growing, more of their favored reforms -- such as closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using test scores to grade teachers -- will likely spread across the country.

The money behind these groups comes from various sources. In some cases, campaign-finance laws make the source of specific donations -- and the money behind education-reform organizations -- hard to track.

The groups insist that their backers are chiefly grassroots, everyday people whose donations illustrate a pent-up desire for these types of policies.

But their detractors say the groups' funding comes mostly from large foundations and hedge-fund types. In 2010, Stand for Children received donations from the Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Casey Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among other philanthropic organizations that are the province of millionaires and billionaires.

"I have never have felt beholden to my funders," Stand for Children's Edelman said. "Where you find alignment with investors is where you create partnerships."

StudentsFirst does not disclose its backers, and it doesn't need to reveal individual donors in its public filings.

Moving forward, one test for the political sustainability of their power might be the reelection of President Barack Obama. Obama's 2008 win, DFER's Williams said, empowered the creation of other reform-minded groups with Democratic backing.

"Obama winning the primary changed everything for us nationwide," he said. "Education reform didn't affect the race at all, the but the race affected state education reform."

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that StudentsFirst planned to raise $1 billion in its first year of operation, attributing that statement to an article in Fast Company. StudentsFirst has since clarified that the group hopes to raise that amount over a five year period.
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