Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, national free-market, conservative think tanks have had a huge impact on the public policy agenda. They have also inspired think tanks at the state level that concentrate on the same issues. In 1989, there were twelve independent, market-oriented, state-based public policy research organizations. Today there are some 40 groups in 37 states, with more on the way. These groups present excellent opportunities for donors who want to make a difference in the public policy arena.
The number one issue today for the free-market, conservative think tanks scattered throughout the United States is school reform. Although they also tackle other public policy concerns, what needs to happen in the public school system is so clearly part of their bailiwick that they devote almost a fifth of their resources to activities related to that field.
One leader in the effort to promote school choice is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, a well-established prototype of what an effective state-based think tank looks like.
Mackinac publishes an impressive number of reports and studies focused on various aspects of school choice that pertain specifically to the state of Michigan. Mackinac also publishes the Michigan Education Report on a monthly basis with wide distribution to teachers and school board members throughout the state. In addition, the Center maintains a Web site that includes a wealth of information about its school reform educational activities.
Although these efforts are focused on the situation in Michigan, the work Mackinac does also serves as a model for similar efforts in other states. For instance, they published a seminal study that systematically analyzes collective bargaining agreements for every school district in the state. This has inspired two other organizations, the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio and the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis to publish similar studies using Mackinac’s as a template.
The intellectual ammunition generated at the state level is especially needed where legislators and opinion leaders do not have at their disposal the kind of research made available by national think tanks to national players. It is precisely because of the local aspect of school reform that the work product of state-based think tanks is so valuable.
Often, state-based think tanks are the lone voices that challenge bad public policy, as was the case with the recent publication by the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Oregon of a major report entitled Money for Nothing? An Analysis of the Oregon Quality Education Model. Here, the Institute takes on the Oregon public school establishment, with report author Richard Vedder concluding that the model is highly flawed. Implementing it will likely lead to a significant waste of taxpayer resources without improving student achievement.
For funders who seek to maximize their giving in the education reform field, state-based think tanks offer attractive opportunities. Because they share information freely and eagerly replicate activities that have proven successful, these organizations stretch their budget dollars very effectively. For instance, in the school reform movement, they can use Arizona’s strong charter school law (crafted with input from the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix) to educate the appropriate constituencies in their respective states about the need for similar laws.
These organizations also learn from each other in ways that go beyond the exchange of ideas and of research content. At the bi-annual conference put on by Mackinac, at the annual Resource Bank conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, and through their umbrella organization, the State Policy Network, the leaders and staff persons of the state-based think tanks get basic and valuable information about management, public relations and fund raising among other topics.
Greenville, South Carolina philanthropist and businessman Tom Roe, who passed away earlier this year, helped to found the State Policy Network in the early 1990s. Since then, the Network has evolved from an informal confederation of state-based think tanks and their supporters into a full service organization. The Network’s institutionalization and growth reflects the increasing influence of its members in the formulation of public policy.
State-based think tanks are lean and mean. They do a yeoman’s job on limited budgets with outstanding results. Especially in the school reform movement, they represent an excellent investment in the generating of ideas and their consequences at the level where they can do most good—in the states.
Gisele Huff is executive director of the Jacquelin Hume Foundation in San Francisco.