Stand For Children, a Portland-based education advocacy organization, jumped into Illinois with a bang earlier this month, contributing $650,000 to nine General Assembly candidates over the course of one week. What does the group want out of Springfield?
Stand for Children (SFC), a Portland-based education advocacy organization, established an affiliate in Illinois last month. It has already hired one local staffer and is still in the process of finding an executive director. The group hasn't met with any editorial boards or conducted any public media campaigns in the state. They haven't even initiated talks with Illinois' two largest teachers unions. But thanks to some timely (and bulky) campaign contributions this month, the new outfit is positioned to have a major impact on the statehouse elections this fall and on state education policy going forward.
Stand for Illinois (SFC) jumped into Illinois with a bang earlier this month, contributing $650,000 to nine legislative candidates over the course of one week. Jonah Edelman, the group's CEO, tells us the endorsement process was comprehensive; over 36 candidates in tight campaigns conducted 30-minute interviews about education reform with members of the organization. Six Democrats and three Republicans were eventually chosen. Republican Ryan Higgins, running to replace retiring State Rep. Paul Froehlich (D-Schaumburg), was the biggest winner, netting $175,000. State Rep. Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria) received a $100,000 cut. Several others earned contributions ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. By Election Day, Fox Chicago reporter Mike Flannery thinks "an additional half-million dollars could flow to other candidates who sign onto the organization's school reform agenda."
Deciphering the key components of that agenda is what Illinois Federation of Teacher's (IFT) spokesperson David Comerford called "the $1 million question." Edelman says the organization, founded 11 years ago, "will work to empower parents, educators, and community leaders to transform their schools." Here's a promotional video they've posted to their website featuring Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone:
A flier passed along to Progress Illinois provides slightly more specific goals: altering teacher tenure laws to incorporate what SFC calls "demonstrated effectiveness according to multiple measures;" requiring "fact-finding" and "public notification" before any teacher strike; and outlawing forced teacher placement, a practice SFC claims "places teachers into schools where they do not want to teach."
According to the letter, the advocates are modeling their priorities around the results of a poll they conducted in August (but have not posted online). Nine in 10 Illinoisans surveyed said "a strike should be used only as an absolute last resort." Eighty percent of respondents agreed that "it should be easier for principals to let ineffective teachers go -- even if they have tenure." (Currently, teachers can gain tenure after four years on the job, if their school districts approve of their performance. If a tenured teacher is later given an unsatisfactory performance review, he or she has a 90-day "remediation period" to demonstrate improvement before the contract is terminated or an appeal is filed.)
Why the Land of Lincoln? "Illinois has made tremendous progress in the last several years," Eldeman says. "There's great leadership and terrific work being done around the state. We thought we could add value." The targeted donations suggest the group is trying to gain a foothold in Springfield quickly. (We've put in calls to several of the candidates chosen for endorsements but have either been turned down for comment or have not yet heard back.)
Illinois' failed bid for Race To The Top (RTTT) federal grants could play a part in SFC's decision. Last winter, the General Assembly passed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 (SB 315), which overhauled how teachers in the state are evaluated, a problem education stakeholders from across the political spectrum agreed needed addressing. While the law stipulates that any new analytic tools must be incorporated "in good faith cooperation with its teachers/collective bargaining representative," it does require school district to incorporate student performance as one factor in performance reviews, which is controversial with some teachers. Illinois also lifted its cap on charter schools.
Like in Colorado, which was not awarded RTTT cash even after the state legislature passed one of the most aggressive teacher-reform packages in the country, SFC may be concerned about the durability of those new laws. "I think in states that didn’t win, the likelihood of some of this stuff getting eroded is real," consultant Andrew Rotherham told Dana Goldstein last week.
The IFT, for what it's worth, did not outright oppose SB 315. And while Comerford says the union would fight major changes to due process laws, it is "happy to work with SFC" on policies where they share common ground. But he did admit some wariness about the group's vague goals and financial backers. According to campaign finance disclosures, the Illinois chapter's largest contributor is Paul Finnegan, a CEO of private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners, who donated $200,000. The founder of PEAK6 Investments, a Chicago financial services firm, chipped in another $100,000. The group's Portland headquarters sent the PAC $260,000. Its board members include two private equity investors, a clothier, and several folks from the world of education entrepreneurship. "Some corporate types," Comerford said, "are not always teacher friendly."
SFC's agenda will likely crystallize this winter, when the legislature heads back to Springfield. They already have the ear of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), whom they reportedly met with before making their final endorsement decisions. "We're looking forward to getting to know legislators en mass," Edelman says, "not just those in targeted races."