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Understanding Advocacy

Creating school choices require ongoing education of and support from those who are in a position to make change — the lawmakers. Advocacy is the term used to best describe what it takes to influence policy changes, at any level. Normally it requires a combination of grassroots organizations, the constant communication of data and research to lawmakers and allies, and direct contact with the legislators whose votes will make or break the creation of a program.

On a daily basis, literally dozens of groups are stationed in state halls, school district meetings and even the nation’s capital, working to influence the adoption — or dissolution — of school choice programs. Advocacy for reform is about making the most out of limited resources and being a counter-weight to the opponents.

The established groups are well-funded and ubiquitous. Most education unions have their headquarters within feet of the Capitol. In Maryland, for example, the Maryland State Teachers Association is literally across the street from where legislators do their business daily. They hold luncheons and receptions regularly where they have lawmakers to themselves to convince them of their special interests — more money, more contract requirements, etc. — while making sure that any time a charter or choice bill is presented they make their opposition known.

Nationally, the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, and its ten thousand affiliates, spend an estimated $275 million on political activity. The NEA itself is expected to bring to bring in $358 million in total of which they will spend almost $40 million on political activity, though some suggest they spend much more in labor costs and in-kind support of candidates, issues, and more. And since charter schools and school choice issues rank highest on the list of issues the unions battle, alongside opposition to tenure and pay reforms, it’s clear that a majority of political spending goes to fight choice efforts.

That’s just one illustration of the kind of advocacy battle that ensues nationally. Consider the state wide advertisement run against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and Senate Present Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, who are advocating for a bill that would give the poorest residents in their state attending failing schools scholarships to attend a private school of choice. They are also seeking to moderate the pension burdens by increasing the contribution of public workers. The Ad is just one of dozens run throughout the year to solidify the union’s base.

The Ad can be found here.

Dollars for these activities come from dues payments, which the state is required to deduct, by law, and send to unions. Thus in every state, school choice advocates must vie for attention and space on private dollars, which, while generous, are just a fraction of what the unions pay.

The unions, as well as school boards and others in the establishment also have a captive audience for literature distribution, in meetings and in local and community events. Because parents and citizens respect their schools and turn out for events related to issues of education, advocates against education reforms often have an easier time getting their message across.

Before you enter any advocacy effort or take what you hear from a group that gives you literature opposing choice to heart, do some research. Consider the position, the rationale and whether their voice really presents those they claim to serve.

Who’s On First

Groups like StudentsFirst PA make a powerful counterweight to the opponents, in helping create forums for citizens. They organize meetings, rallies, testimony, and connect parents who need options with the legislators that need to understand them. Most states where school choice is hot have active groups. Indiana has School Choice Indiana is a model for what a statewide advocacy group should do and offer. They recently conducted and shared a statewide poll on residents’ attitudes toward school choice. As their work will attest to, school choice support is growing.

“Among the findings in a report presented today to the Indiana State Board of Education, 41% of Indiana respondents would prefer a private school choice program or the ability to transfer their child to another public school if enrolled in a public school on academic probation. 53% of respondents would prefer additional resources for their school.”

While a majority of respondents would support additional resources for their schools, support for an alternative school choice option rose eight (8) percentage points in two years. ”That’s a dramatic increase in support for educational options,” said Jeff Brantley, Executive Director of School Choice Indiana. “While Hoosiers think we should spend more on education, the real shift in public opinion has been to providing parents with more choices.”

Advocacy need not be political. It’s about educating people on the issues. Sometimes a state think tank weighs in with position papers and research to help. Many state think tanks have robust education reform centers, like the Reason Foundation at the national level, or the Heartland Institute in Illinois, whose School Reform News also has the pulse on everything education. A list of all state and national think tanks is available at the State Policy Network, whose members all share an interest in great education innovations.

Likewise, resources are available to reach those working in your community or state. Call the Center for Education Reform at 1-800-521-2118 for more information or check these resource pages frequently for updates. Our colleagues at the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Educational Freedom, the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools also list organizations working in and around the bevy of reform efforts we call “school choice.”

Additional national and state resources include:

National Organizations
Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO)
Democrats for Education Reform
Education Reform Now
Hispanic Council for Reform & Educational Options
National School Choice Week
Charter School Capital

State-Level Allied Organizations
Arizona: AZ School Tuition Organization Association
Florida: Step Up for Students
Georgia: Center for an Educated Georgia
Indiana: Institute for Quality Education
Iowa: Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education
Louisiana: Louisiana BAEO
Louisiana Federation for Children
Minnesota: Coalition for Kids
Missouri: Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri
New Jersey: Excellent Education for Everyone
North Carolina: Parents for Educational Freedom in NC
Ohio: School Choice Ohio
Pennsylvania: REACH Foundation
Students First Pennsylvania
Rhode Island: Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance
Utah: Parents for Choice in Education
Washington, D.C.: D.C Parents for School Choice
Wisconsin: School Choice Wisconsin
Milwaukee BAEO
Hispanics for School Choice

Students for Ed Reform (SFER): Catharine Bellinger puts college career on pause to create group that gives college students a voice in the reform debate. “There’s an incredible sense of urgency in this country around changing our public education system, and I just thought it couldn’t wait.” Check out ChoiceMedia.TV’s interview for more.

Polls and Surveys

Probably the most important thing to know about advocacy is that everyone is or can be an advocate. That’s why opinion polls and surveys are so important. Both the media and lawmakers take the public’s temperature on reform issues often and use it to somewhat gauge what they say and do. Historically, polls always show that Americans embrace the basic ideas of choice and competition.

CER commissioned a poll to find answers to those fundamental questions and found that while Americans lack a clear understanding about the nature, purpose and “charter” of charter schools, they solidly support several of the key principles that govern charters. Only 20% correctly identified charter schools as public schools, but when told the definition of a charter, 78% supported it. For more on our state-by-state results, click here.

The Foundation for Educational Choice has been conducting polls in states across the U.S. to find out people’s opinion on school choice. Some of their recent polling results include:

Indiana voters are much more likely to favor charter schools (66%), rather than oppose such schools (16%). All counties overwhelmingly support charter schools. In the statewide sample, respondents who say they “strongly favor” charter schools outnumber those who say they “strongly oppose” charter schools by a 4-to-1 ratio.

There is decidedly strong Hoosier support for school vouchers in Indiana and across the eight oversampled counties. In the statewide sample, there is a sizeable gap between those who favor school vouchers (66%) and those who oppose (24%) school vouchers, equal to 42 percentage points.

Voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York decidedly favor charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers, according to a new report, which polled the public on their views on public education and reform in these six states. Please see their website for more detailed information.

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