A State Model for Defending Reform on Multiple Fronts

  • Education
  • 2010

Education reformers have learned over the past decade that philanthropic donations will often be much more effective if they are combined with political advocacy that supports innovation and defends new experiments from opposing interest groups. A pioneer in this area was John Kirtley, a major education donor who pulled together a 2010 grassroots rally of 5,600 Floridians to pass historic legislation offering families more educational choices. A Tampa venture-capitalist who had donated and raised millions to improve schooling for low-income families, Kirtley helped organize the demonstration in the state capital after realizing that a decade of funding charitable efforts was not enough, that he needed to coordinate his donations with legislative efforts and political advocacy.

Kirtley’s charity Step Up for Students channels money directly to families for tuition and other school expenses. The donors, schools, and families involved in Step Up eventually discovered they needed to take their case directly to legislators, so Kirtley launched a parallel 501(c)(4) group that was able to handle political advocacy, and then a 527 political action committee to support election candidates willing to make tough votes in favor of reform. From 2002 to 2008, the 527 group invested about $5 million in various legislative races. Kirtley and his philanthropic allies also donated money directly to reformist candidates.

The culmination of this combined charitable, legislative, and political work came in 2010, when the Florida legislature cast historic bipartisan votes in favor of educational choice—immediately after Kirtley and fellow donors orchestrated the largest political gathering in state history. “If you want to achieve any real progress in education reform,” Kirtley concluded, “you cannot just have a (c)(3) capability. You must also have advocacy and political capabilities. If your goal is to change K-12 policy, you’re going to have to change K-12 laws. And if legislators refuse to change those laws, then you’re going to have to change those legislators.” This conclusion has become widely shared among school reformers across the nation.

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