After RTT comes the power of states

On May 26, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell signed into law a sweeping education reform bill that lifts the cap on high-performing charter schools, requires every district in the state to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement, and creates the state’s first alternative pathway to certification for principals. Like many states, Race to the Top was the rallying cry for supporters of these reforms in Connecticut. But what made the difference in getting reforms actually passed into law—while they stalled out in similar states like Minnesota and Indiana—was a focused, professional campaign led by ConnCAN, a Connecticut-based education reform advocacy organization where I’ve had the honor to serve as COO these past five years.

ConnCAN doesn’t run schools or recruit teachers. Instead, it works to improve public education by changing state policy. Year after year, ConnCAN has forged research and policy, communications and mobilization, and legislative advocacy into a powerful lever for change. Before Race to the Top, ConnCAN’s previous advocacy campaigns resulted in Connecticut’s first alternative route for teachers, sweeping data transparency rules, and a more than doubling of state funding for charter schools.

Over the last three decades, ed reformers have done a great job of generating new policy ideas for boosting student achievement but by and large they’ve fallen way short in building the advocacy infrastructure needed to turn these ideas into law. Where we have invested in advocacy at all, we have overwhelmingly spent these dollars in Washington, D.C., despite the fact that districts and states control more than 90 percent of education funding. And when we have invested in state-level advocacy work, it’s usually been in temporary, single-issue efforts instead of the broad-based, and sustained campaigns needed to achieve lasting change.

Against this general trend, a small number of ed reform groups—such as the Rodel Foundation, Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children and ConnCAN—have started to develop a track record of success in solving ed reformers’ “last mile problem” of securing true policy change in state capitals. It is time that we build upon what is beginning to work in state-level ed reform advocacy campaigns to bring this vital wing of the movement to scale.

Through a new venture called 50CAN—which aims to bring ConnCAN-style campaigns to other states—our team has spent the past year exploring what we can learn from ConnCAN’s successes and failures. Three key lessons dominate a set of best practices that will provide the foundation for these new state campaigns, starting this November with the launch of RI-CAN: The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now.

Power of microtargeting. One of ConnCAN’s earliest mistakes was a scattershot approach to recruiting advocates. We knew we wanted to create a statewide movement of ed reformers. Unfortunately, we had no idea where to find them, so we searched through haystacks for needles. We tried booths at town fairs, door-to-door canvassing, ads in movie theaters, and online petitions: pretty much any idea that was cooked up in a staff meeting was put to the test in the field. Yet the results were disappointing.

We gradually came to understand that we weren’t targeting our recruitment effort effectively because we didn’t know what ed reformers actually looked like until they fell into our hands. If we were going to recruit the activists needed to drive statewide reform, we couldn’t wait for that to happen. So, we set out to try something different.

Stealing a page from political campaigns, we decided to try microtargeting. We matched our existing supporters to a political and commercial database and looked for the commonalities among our members that could help us better reach the citizens who wanted to join an ed reform movement but had never been asked. The result: in one year we more than doubled our database from 14,000 to 30,000 and tripled the number of people taking action in our campaigns. These newly engaged advocates became a decisive factor in hard fought policy victories.

Policies need campaigns—and campaigns need candidates. One of the great challenges in advancing ed reform on the state level is complexity. We learned that you can—and must—transform worthy policy ideas such as “alternative routes to certification for school administrators” into words that directly convey their meaning and significance to average citizens. But to hold all of these policy ideas together, you also need to present them as part of a branded campaign with a clear beginning and end. And you need to give these campaigns faces and voices. People don’t turn out en masse in support of ideas; they turn out in support of people who ask.

To make these campaigns work we had to identify a candidate—in our case ConnCAN’s CEO, Alex Johnston—who would become the voice of the movement and who would speak directly to our members. Almost overnight, the challenges of developing a two-way conversation disappeared and a new challenge emerged: how to find the time to respond to all of the people reaching out to us.

Accountability starts at home. Nonprofits trend toward mediocrity—we admit it—but when you are facing off against some of the toughest entrenched interests in the country, mediocrity doesn’t cut it. One of the greatest challenges for nonprofits is that we don’t have the natural market forces that exist in the business world to drive difficult conversations around excellence. We learned that to create those external forces and push ourselves to excellence, we needed to create the opportunity for public failure by announcing specific policy change goals to our members, funders, and the broader public before each legislative session. When you know that there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind whether you succeed or fail, it becomes a powerful driver for going the extra mile to secure victory.

As we’re learning from Race to the Top, there is a limit to what Uncle Sam can do to drive state-level ed reform. True transformation will come only when national policies are paired with outstanding education-advocacy campaigns at the state level. This is a strategy in which teacher unions have wisely invested for decades—and they’ve masterfully advocated for their interests. As the ConnCAN example demonstrates, we can ensure that kids’ interests always come first in America’s state capitals but only if we rise to the challenge by investing in innovative, savvy, and focused state campaigns for ed reform.

Marc Porter Magee will be leaving his role as ConnCAN’s Chief Operating Officer later this year to lead 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, a new nonprofit organization that aims to launch ed reform campaigns in one-third to one-half of all 50 states by 2015. ConnCAN is a member of the Policy Innovators in Education Network (PIENet), a coalition of state-based reform groups that Fordham and three other national think tanks helped to create.

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