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There’s a lot for reformers to consider from this week’s Dropout Nation analyses of the National Education Association’s $131 million in political influence-spending. And a few key lessons can be gleaned from the data on how the nation’s largest teachers’ union is using its dollars to fight against reform efforts in statehouses and on the ground.

wpid-threethoughslogoThe first? The movement must work more-closely with impromptu leaders and grassroots activists yearning to support reform within black and Latino communities, especially emerging Parent Power groups outside of the old-school civil rights circles, as well as with bellwethers that have become reform-minded such as the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. Particularly with those groups working in the grassroots, reformers must put down some dollars, build stronger ties, listen to the concerns of those groups and the families they represent, and get to work. This also means targeting dollars in better ways than the NEA has for the past few years; even with the union rethinking its strategy and demanding more from social justice and civil rights groups, the union remains scatter-shot in how it spends the dues it forcibly collects from both high-quality and laggard teachers in classrooms.

But this goes beyond money. Chat with civil rights-oriented school reformers and they will tell you that one reason why the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers still retain some influence among their old-school counterparts in the civil rights movement is because the two unions are quite willing to give a helping hand in ways beyond money. From allowing groups to convene meetings in their lavish offices inside the Beltway, to allowing school-level PTA units to use their fax machines and copiers, the two unions have long-ago realized that resource-strapped groups are the easiest to pick off and co-opt to their side. The school reform movement’s biggest players, including Teach For America — which has extensive facilities throughout the nation — could easily provide free meeting space to grassroots reformers on the ground if they so choose.

Dollars should also be focused on helping grassroots outfits, especially Parent Power groups, develop their capacity; this includes financing advisory services that can aid these groups in developing strong financial controls as well as craft robust governance structures that can help such groups work more-effectively against NEA and AFT affiliates and locals. Certainly this should be an activity embraced by the big school reform philanthropies which are sometimes criticized privately among reformers for cumbersome request-for-proposal processes and for not fully understanding what building capacity really means. But the big philanthropies themselves may be far too bureaucratic to do embrace such an approach. So it may take the emergence of smaller philanthropies embracing an approach similar to what angel investors do in providing seed money to start-up ventures in the technology field in order to make this a reality.

The second lesson for reformers: They must get better when it comes to the political ground game and embrace the brass-knuckle tactics increasingly being used by teachers’ unions and their allies among progressive groups (as well as the approaches taken by Democrats and Republicans in political campaigns outside of education). The NEA, along with the AFT have always done a solid (if not always effective) job of leveraging their coffers and rank-and-file members on the ground. But as yesterday’s follow-up has shown, the NEA is directing more of its dollars to voter registration drives, supporting ballot initiatives, and using get-out-the-vote tactics that can make the difference between victory and defeat in political campaigns. Reformers have always been skillful in working statehouse corridors and policymakers. But politicians count votes and cash, and they won’t stand by any reform if they have to take on NEA affiliates with plenty of both.

Certainly some reform outfits, including Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, understand the reality that political action is critical to sustaining reform for the long haul. The emergence of Teach For America as a training ground for reform-minded politicians is also wonderful to see. But more needs to be done on the political front. So reformers must embrace the single-issue voter approach that was crafted by the legendary Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, who understood that having allies was more important than backing particular parties. This means embracing a bipartisan approach — including a willingness by reformers within both parties to back politicians on the opposite side who support reform goals. It also means taking on simple tactics such as holding voter registration drives, which can serve both as opportunities for civic engagement and for getting the message out to communities about why reforming education matters.

This savvy must extend to media. As seen last night on MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes’ eponymous show, the NEA and AFT are also getting better at the public relations, especially in placing rank-and-file members who fail to mention their union affiliations as well as their work with groups supported by the two unions. [In such situations, by the way, reformers appearing on these shows should aggressively raise questions about such ties, which in turn, will also lead talk show hosts to also ask those questions.] Reformers have long had the high ground on the media front, especially in currying auteurs such as Waiting for ‘Superman’? director Davis Guggenheim and M. Nighty Shyalaman. But no advantage lasts forever, especially when traditionalist opposition realize that they are getting beat badly. This is why the NEA and AFT are launching their “Day of Action” this coming Monday to champion the policies and practices that sustain their coffers and influence; it is also why a group called the Institute for Better Education (whose recruitment memo for an executive director was revealed today by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo) is being formed by traditionalists to aggressively develop news that takes aim at reformers. Reform activists should already be mounting a counter-campaign that points out how the policies the two unions support have led to an education crisis in which 120 children every hour drop out of school and into economic despair. More importantly, each and every day, reformers should both point out the movement’s positive vision of brighter futures for all children as well as point out how NEA and AFT affiliates help themselves financially at the expense of kids.

The final lesson? Reformers must put more money into politically advancing reform. Consider this: The NEA’s $131 million in influence-spending is double the double the $61 million spent in 2012 by the Walton Family Foundation, the second-largest school reform philanthropy after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (whose $399 million in funding to reform outfits in 2012 outstrips the NEA’s largesse). The NEA’s political spending is also greater than that of politically-oriented reformers. Stand for Children, for example, spent just $15 million in 2012, according to its most-recent annual report and its political action fund only spent $1.1 million on political campaigns in 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics; StudentsFirst only spent $1.4 million in 2012, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from National Institute on Money in State Politics and OpenSecrets.org. The NEA’s spend, scatter-shot as it is, is still powerful when one remembers that it faces few restrictions on how it doles out contributions to allies and even fewer encumbrances on what can be considered “representational activities” on behalf of the rank-and-file. Reform-oriented foundations are effectively barred by federal regulations restricting them from engaging in political activities in aggressive ways; this is a legacy of outrage during the 1960s over the social reform efforts of the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies deemed too political by critics of the time (including the school decentralization effort in New York City that led to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle between the AFT’s Big Apple affiliate and those who would now be considered Parent Power activists today).

While this spending hasn’t helped the NEA keep its influence over education policy from falling into decline, it has helped the union and its allies score defensive victories against reformers. Certainly one can argue that reformers should continue to devote their money to building up organizations focused on transforming existing institutions, developing alternative teacher training outfits, and even launching alternatives to traditional public schools. At the same time, anyone who thinks that systemic reform can happen without political action — especially in battling for control of school boards that run most districts, as well as winning mayoral races in cities where city chief executives run schools — is not thinking clearly. As seen in Texas this year, where reformers saw two decades of hard-won reforms get rolled back, sustaining and advancing reform requires vigilance and cash. So reformers must spend more on political campaigning — and spend it smartly.

Once again, the NEA’s activities offer plenty of lessons from which reformers can learn. Now it is time to apply them in advancing and sustaining reforms that will help all children succeed.

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