Fight Club: Are Advocacy Organizations Changing the Politics of Education?

Article excerpt

Every few weeks, a group of education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) gathers in Washington, D.C., to compare notes and plot strategy in what is (half in jest) referred to as "fight club." Like the subject of the 1999 David Fincher movie, this fight club sees itself as the underdog in an epic J struggle for freedom and equality. While the target of the film's ire is consumerism, these national ERAOs and their counterparts at the state level are focused on enacting sweeping education policy changes to increase accountability for student achievement, improve teacher quality, turn around failing schools, and expand school choice. As Terry Moe documents in his recent book, Special Interest, for decades the politics of school reform have been dominated by the education establishment, the collection of teachers unions and other school employee associations derisively called the "blob" by reformers. But the past two years have witnessed an unprecedented wave of state education reforms, much of it fiercely opposed by the unions. The ERAOs played an active role in pushing for these changes, and it is clear that they are reshaping the politics of school reform in the United States in important ways. But does the reform blob really stand a chance of defeating the education blob?

What Are the ERAOs?

Interviews with ERAO leaders reveal that the challenges of implementing No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--in particular, states' efforts to game its accountability, choice, and school restructuring mandates--spawned the creation of policy advocacy organizations that could push for reform in state capitols. As Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) explained, "There was recognition over time that good ideas alone weren't enough and weren't going to get us across the finish line in terms of systemic reform. There needed to be a significant investment of time and resources in advocating for political changes that would enable and protect reform." The largest of the ERAOs (in terms of staff, budget, and reach) are Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN), DFER, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), but this remains a relatively decentralized and fragmented movement. Different groups embrace somewhat different policy agendas and tactics, from grassroots mobilization to lobbying policymakers and operating political action committees.

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Another way that ERAOs differ is in their scope and where they operate. Groups such as Advance Illinois and the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education are independent operators that focus explicitly on a single state or city. Stand for Children, 50CAN, DFER, and FEE are national organizations that work in multiple states. Stand for Marc Porter Magee, presider Children currently has affiliates in 9 states, 50CAN operates in 4 states (originating from its flag-ship ConnCAN, which operates in Connecticut alone), and DFER has 11 state chapters (see sidebar, page 31). How do the ERAOs decide what states to operate in? Marc Porter Magee, president and founder of 50CAN, talks about a "vetting process" that centers on figuring out what the "advocacy value-add score" would be in a potential state. Collectively, the ERAO leaders I spoke with identified three critical factors: 1) Is there a void to fill (no existing organization already doing the work)? 2) Is there sufficient local support for reform, and are local champions in place to lead the effort? 3) Is state philanthropic support available to fund the effort and sustain it over time?

While the groups vary considerably in tactics and geographic base, several common elements are apparent. The first is a connection to school choice, and, in particular, to the charter school movement. Many of the ERAOs emerged from the frustration of charter school operators--and their supporters in the business and civil rights communities--at the restrictions placed on charter operations and growth. …