The Influence of Policy Advocacy — Findings and Caveats

A new Brookings study looks at the influence of different education advocacy groups on the passage of Louisiana’s state-wide school voucher bill. In a clever twist, Russ Whitehurst and his co-authors added a fictitious advocacy group to the survey form as a placebo, to calibrate the rankings. After acknowledging that Governor Bobby Jindal was far more responsible for the enactment of the voucher program than any advocacy group, the paper concludes that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was the next most influential player. That’s not surprising given that its political contributions topped three quarters of a million dollars in the last state election cycle. Second and third places went, respectively, to the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children.

This is useful information but it should be digested with two important caveats in mind. First, enacting a particular bill is an imperfect measure of long-term impact on policy, as the case of Utah illustrates. In February 2007, Utah enacted a universal voucher program. Less than a month later, teachers’ union opponents began a petition to put the voucher bill to a referendum vote and campaigned aggressively against it. By November, before a single child had ever received a voucher, voters struck the program down by a 3 to 2 margin. The lesson? If reform advocates don’t win over the public, their influence with state legislators can’t protect a program from ultimately being hobbled or overturned.

The second point is that, to the extent advocacy organizations do exert a lasting impact, they have a responsibility to ensure that their recommendations can deliver on their promises. “School choice” is a catchall phrase, encompassing reforms as disparate as public school open enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits. Even within each of these policy categories, details between programs vary substantially. But expertise in advocacy does not automatically confer expertise in policy (or vice versa). Will a particular policy perpetuate social conflicts over what is taught, or help to end them? Will it ultimately suffocate educators with regulatory red tape and limit parental choices, or preserve freedom in the long term? Will it allow brilliant educators to reach masses of students while limiting the growth of inferior schools? There are already at least tentative answers to these questions, though much remains to be learned. The more deeply advocacy organizations explore these questions before pushing through legislation, the more successful they will ultimately be.