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The lobbying group challenging teachers unions takes on America

The lobbying group whose H.R. recommendations virtually staffed President Obama’s Education Department is spreading its “reform” tentacles.

Democrats for Education Reform now has branches in Missouri, Colorado, and Wisconsin, in addition to its hometown, New York, and the organization plans to be in 10 states by 2011, executive director Joe Williams told me earlier this week.

We have very good conditions at the federal level right now for at least talking about reform, but we’re really talking about what at the end of the day is a local issue, Williams said. So the strength of any national organization like ours is really going to come down to how strong its local units are.

The new branches are mostly self-sustaining, relying on leadership from volunteer boards and local residents already active in education. “It’s a lot of people who were doing a lot of work on reform, but there was no political arm to engage at the political level,” Williams said.

What Williams calls DFER’s “outpost” in Colorado is a case study for its plans elsewhere. Rather than generate policy ideas, the organization focuses on raising money for candidates who support its favored brand of changes to education — policies like charter schools, merit pay, and higher teaching standards. Among the Colorado officials DFER supports is Mike Johnston, who advised candidate Obama’s presidential campaign and replaced the president of Colorado’s state senate, Peter Groff, after he joined President Obama’s education department.

Williams said DFER is also focusing on school board elections in Denver, giving money to members who support its agenda. In Missouri, the goal is to support a new mayor of St. Louis who has welcomed charter school operators to the city, with support from the Walton Foundation. Other regions on the horizon include Florida, Rhode Island, and Newark, New Jersey.

The political work, especially at the school board level, offers a direct challenge to teachers unions, which spent much of the 20th century building up political operations to support friendly school board members and state and federal lawmakers in elections. Unions also act as federations, with independent branches in cities and states across the country under the umbrella of national offices.

Williams didn’t say how much money the organization has spread so far, explaining that numbers are difficult to collect because the organization mostly coordinates individual checks. In New York, the organization has directed “a few million” dollars since late 2006, he estimated.

I wrote about DFER’s work in New York as one of my first assignments for The New York Sun, focusing on the hedge-fund-heavy makeup of the group’s board of directors (which has since been lampooned):

As investors, the group’s leaders spend their days searching for hidden diamonds in the rough: businesses the market has left for dead, but a savvy investor could turn for a profit. A big inner-city school system, Mr. Tilson explained, is kind of like that — the General Motors of the education world. I see very, very similar dynamics: very large bureaucratic organizations that have become increasingly disconnected from their customers; that are producing an inferior product and losing customers; that are heavily unionized, he said. A successful charter school, on the other hand, is like Toyota 20 years ago.

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