New Education Advocacy Organizations in the U.S. States: National Snapshot and a Case Study of Advance Illinois

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New Education Advocacy Organizations in the U.S. States: National Snapshot and a Case Study of Advance Illinois

Advance Illinois is a new education advocacy organization that began its work in 2008. Its stated mission is to be "An independent, objective, voice to promote a public education system in Illinois that prepares all students to be ready for work, college, and democratic citizenship." It was founded with the support of the Chicagobased Joyce Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and leading figures in Illinois from across the political spectrum. During its initial startup phase it also received support from the Wallace Foundation. Its original board chairmen were the state's former Republican governor Jim Edgar, and Democrat Bill Daley, a native Chicagoan and son of the city's former iconic mayor, the late Richard J. Daley. Edgar and Daley's presence provided Advance Illinois with bipartisan bona fides and, given their stature in state politics, helped recruit additional well-known state leaders to serve on the board.

Since its founding, Advance Illinois has grown as an organization and it has developed a multidimensional agenda that spans pre-K, K-12, and higher education. It has become a well-known and consequential participant in the state's education policy arena. Its most general main objectives have been to influence discussions about education in the state and to influence the content of policy.


Key findings on Advance Illinois's CONTRIBUTIONS TO DISCOURSE ABOUT EDUCATION are:

  • Advance Illinois has been influential in shaping education policy debates in Illinois Three contributions stand out. First, the group has been recognized as a key source of information for state policy elites inside and outside government. Second, it has effectively engaged the media and generated favorable coverage of its work and the agendas it supports. Third, it has positioned itself as a valuable intermediary between groups and individuals, helping to transmit information and build bridges between supporters and sometimes even otherwise reluctant or potentially unknown partners. Much evidence reveals that Advance Illinois has contributed positively to education policy discussions in Illinois. Several of our respondents noted how the organization has a reputation for doing its homework before taking its positions. On balance the organization deserves high marks for its effectiveness in advancing discussions consistent with the agenda it has embraced.
  • Additional perspectives on the organization's contribution to discourse also exist, although these came up less frequently in our research than the points just noted. Consider these three perspectives. First, among its critics and some of its friends, Advance Illinois has received criticism for how it grades the quality of education in the state, using an A to F system published in its The State We're In reports. Second, as the organization has matured, and it has become more focused on advancing its agenda, some people feel that it has been less likely to be open to different perspectives as it appeared to be when it began its work. Third, some of our interview respondents indicated that Advance Illinois sometimes may use data and evidence too narrowly, focusing on findings that support its work and not considering alternative perspectives as well as it should. These last two points seem at least partly due to a predictable evolution that one would expect to see as a new organization develops and begins establishing itself. It is also consistent with behavior of other new or traditional education advocacy groups.

Key findings on Advance Illinois's CONTRIBUTIONS TO EDUCATION ON POLICYMAKING are:

  • Interview respondents and additional evidence attest that Advance Illinois has positioned itself to make consequential contributions to education policymaking in the state. Three particular examples of this work stand out. First, it has influenced the lawmaking process in Illinois on important legislation in recent years, including the state's major changes to its teacher evaluation policies. Second, it has assumed formal and informal roles in partnerships with traditional governing institutions, including the state education agency (known as the Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE) and the state's P-20 Council. Third, it has contributed to policy development in the state by being an effective resource mobilizer for state agencies and other groups, helping to enable these organizations to carry out their increasingly complicated and numerous duties.
  • Advance Illinois's efforts in the legislative process and as a supporter, either as collaborator or resource mobilizer for traditional state institutions, has enabled it to amass an impressive array of policy accomplishments in its relatively brief history. While we found no evidence challenging the claim that the organization has had much influence, two alternative perspectives on its contributions to education policymaking did emerge. First, the speed with which Advance Illinois has forged its connections with traditional state institutions has created some perceptions that the group has too much influence that sometimes lacks transparency. Second, its main focus on state-level advocacy, treetops work as our respondents described it, has created the potential for Advance Illinois to be less attentive to whether the policies it supports align with the enabling conditions on the ground required for reforms to succeed.

Our OVERALL OBSERVATIONS about Advance Illinois and its work are:

  • An assessment of Advance Illinois should begin by evaluating the organization based on the goals and objectives that it has outlined for itself and by the promises it has made to its supporters. Using those criteria as a basis for judgment, which are independent of whether one agrees with the advocacy agenda that Advance Illinois has developed, the organization deserves high marks. In a remarkably short period of time, the Advance Illinois staff and board members have demonstrated an impressive ability to weave the organization into the fabric of the education policy quilt in the state and to push forward many elements of its expansive agenda.
  • Looking ahead, potential opportunities and new challenges will emerge for Advance Illinois as the policy system turns attention to implementing the blizzard of recent reforms that have become law. On numerous issues, Advance Illinois will be in the position of defending the current system to protect prior victories, rather than advocating for policy change that shifts from the status quo. The move from "offense" to "defense" will likely be challenging because reform initiatives have been so broad and sweeping, future costs of implementing them are still uncertain, and some of the practical details of the initiatives themselves, as with Common Core and its accompanying assessments, are still taking shape.
  • One factor that will be missing in the future, which helped prompt a sense of urgency in 2009 and 2010 and contributed to some of Advance Illinois's early successes, is the absence of the Race to the Top carrot and its promise of a potential windfall of resources for the winning states. Given the dysfunction in the U.S. Congress, future injections of similar federal funding likely will be more limited, if available at all, in the coming years. As a result, Illinois, as with other states, will be relying on the generosity of its own taxpayers and the judgments of its state legislators to supply adequate funding and flexibility to move their initiatives forward.

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