We launched our #OpenAdvocacy series in March to inspire more people to get involved in education advocacy and share what we have learned over 10 years of campaigns. Our first six posts are now available in a single PDF: “The 50CAN Guide to Building Advocacy Campaigns.”
We are thrilled with how many people took an interest in these posts over the last few weeks. Thank you! We were also listening when many of you also asked that we take these tools and show how they work in the real world. In this next series of posts, we will move from theory to practice with some campaign case studies. We hope by looking back through several previous campaigns we will make it a little easier to think about how to move forward with the changes you are seeking in your community.
In our inaugural case study post, I decided to examine ConnCAN’s 2010 advocacy campaign since this was the final Connecticut campaign I had the opportunity to work on before spinning off 50CAN as an independent organization to help bring these lessons learned to new states.
In May 2009, the team at ConnCAN started working on its fifth advocacy campaign. After a listening tour where we talked to hundreds of parents, teachers and concerned citizens across the state, we concluded that the next big issue we should take on was school finance reform. During the summer months we embarked on an ambitious research effort to understand what kind of policy reforms would strengthen Connecticut’s schools.
By September we had a campaign plan in place. And then we heard about the details of the Race to the Top competition. The more we talked with our supporters the more we realized what a big opportunity this could be for policies that had been ignored by the political establishment for too long. So we ended up tearing up our carefully crafted plans and starting over. We got to work on a new plan for 2010, which we named “Our Race to the Top.”
Goal and Strategy
Every plan needs a goal. We decided our goal in 2010 would be to help Connecticut win Race to the Top by securing four key policy changes that would strengthen the state’s application: performance-based teacher evaluations, alternative pathways to becoming a principal, more rigorous standards and support for charter school growth.
It quickly became clear what an uphill battle this would be. Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education at the time was grudgingly putting together an application, but he also made it known that he felt no new policy changes were needed to make Connecticut competitive.
We developed a two-part plan to change the odds in Connecticut’s favor.
It was clear that this campaign would come down to understanding the Race to the Top rules and what it would take to win. Therefore, for our top-tier strategy we chose elite negotiation with a focus on three tactics: 1) policy analysis, 2) earned media and 3) coalition building.
At the same time, we also needed a way to make sure the public’s voice was heard. Therefore, for our second-tier strategy we chose social movements with a focus on three additional tactics: 1) a public awareness campaign, 2) mobilizing supporters and 3) storytelling.
Policy analysis. Perhaps the most important tactic in the campaign was policy analysis: breaking down the complex Race to the Top scoring system and comparing it to existing state policy to understand what it would take to win. This analysis helped us demonstrate how the four policy changes we were seeking were needed to increase the odds of success.
Our challenge was to capture the attention of policymakers and the public. When Connecticut’s application was released to the public we poured over the details. One thing stuck out: where other states had detailed goals and metrics, Connecticut’s application had blanks. On February 21st we put out a press release: “Connecticut Leaves 120 Blanks in Race to the Top Application.”
The result was a media firestorm with more than 50 stories in the following week. The “120 blanks” were discussed on three of the state’s four Sunday talk shows and supportive editorials were soon published in the New Haven Register and Hartford Courant calling on the state to fix the application.
We followed up these stories with a simple message: since the approach of moving forward without new policies had failed in Round 1, it was now up to the legislature in Round 2. This message was taken up by co-chairs of the legislature’s education committee, who held a press conference on the day Connecticut learned it had lost Round 1 of the competition. They voiced their commitment to legislative change before the next application was due in June.
Connecticut’s loss in Round 1 drew another round of media criticism and became a flashpoint in the governor’s race, with Democratic frontrunner Dannel Malloy declaring that we had “embarrassed ourselves” with our poor showing.
Mobilizing supporters. The policy analysis got the ball rolling on legislative change, but we knew it wouldn’t be enough. The reforms that were needed to become competitive were significant and would require a major show of public support.
One of the challenges with Race to the Top was how much of the work was done behind close doors. That’s why we put a big emphasis on removing the barriers for the public to understand what was going on and how to get involved.
During the course of the campaign we kept in touch with our supporters through short video updates. This communications and engagement effort culminated in a call for supporters to show up at a critical legislative hearing for these bills, which was answered by more than 500 people. We sent out this update the night of the bill debate.
On May 26th, just two weeks before the Round 2 application was due, Gov. Jodi Rell signed Public Act No. 10-111 into law. The hard fought “Our Race to the Top” campaign had resulted in four important steps forward for Connecticut schools:
1) For the first time, every district in the state was required to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement growth.
2) A new pathway to certification was created to remove the barriers for talented classroom teachers to become school principals.
3) The state board of education adopted the Common Core State Standards, significantly increasing the rigor of Connecticut’s standards.
4) The cap on the number of students that could enroll in each charter school was lifted.
Unfortunately, while these changes significantly strengthened the application, they weren’t enough to lift Connecticut to victory in Round 2 of Race to the Top.
Reflecting on the campaign, PIE Network executive director Suzanne Tacheny Kubach wrote “Connecticut may have been sitting on the sidelines during Tuesday’s announcement of Race to the Top winners, but ConnCAN and its supporters have to be congratulated for exerting one of the boldest ‘Race’ campaigns in the country … too many in education assume that governors are the only ones who can make any real change … ConnCAN demonstrated that when strong advocates do their thing, and work in partnership with the legislative champions they do have, they can do a lot to change the trajectory of state education policy for the better. And that’s a big win for us all.”
Next week, we’ll look at how this approach to campaigns evolved as we partnered with local leaders outside of the Nutmeg State by examining one of the founding campaigns in 50CAN’s first year: MinnCAN’s 2011 preschool campaign.