Alexander Russo Interviews Jonah Edelman
Stand for Children advocates for reform-minded lawmakers.
Think that education issues are dominated by teachers unions and other well-funded stakeholders? Jonah Edelman, the young leader of the centrist grassroots advocacy group Stand for Children (SFC), intends to change that. Over the past decade, the Oregon- and Massachusetts-based organization has founded affiliates in five other states-Arizona, Tennessee, Washington, Illinois, and Colorado-with two more (Indiana and Texas) in the works. SFC distributed $1.1 million in funds during the last cycle. The 40-year-old Edelman, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, is the son of famed civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. He was named one of Time magazine's Top 11 Education Leaders for 2011 and his organization was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal ("Education Groups Challenge Unions") along with frequent collaborator Democrats For Education Reform (DFER).
Q Why the focus on politics and fundraising?
A You have to help elect like-minded lawmakers if you want to win education debates, and to do that you need organized people and organized money.
Q How does Stand for Children actually get involved in reform efforts?
A In Illinois, for example, we identified and interviewed 36 candidates for state legislator and gave our support to nine of them [more than $600,000 to six Democrats and three Republicans].
Q How did SFC perform in the 2010 midterm elections?
A We did incredibly well. In Colorado, for example, every single legislator we supported won except one whose loss was unrelated to his positions on education issues.
Q Do you think you could have changed the outcome of the D.C. primary if you'd gotten involved for Fenty and Rhee?
Q Where did SFC's involvement make the difference-a candidate who would otherwise have lost or a policy debate that would have gone the other way?
A We championed the creation of a statewide educator evaluation framework in Arizona, and in Washington state we played a decisive role in the election of several legislators, including a Republican challenger who defeated an incumbent who had opposed evaluating teachers in part based on student academic progress.
Q Why would a school reform organization or nonprofit use SFC rather than do their own advocacy?
A Advocacy is a team sport. No matter how charismatic you are, it's hard to get things done on your own.
Q What else does SFC do besides give money to candidates and roll out the campaign "ground game"?
A We're a soup-to-nuts education advocacy organization. We do policy development, lobbying, constituency building, digital media outreach (our Facebook "likes" are at 100,000 for this year), as well as traditional media, candidate endorsements, campaign fundraising, and more.
Q What's the difference between SFC and DFER, with whom you were profiled in the Wall Street Journal?
A One difference is that we do grassroots organizing and mobilizing of parents and educators, including a significant volunteer recruitment.
Q Will you partner with reform-minded district administrators or school boards to push local issues or to help folks get or stay elected?
A We do that all the time. Big changes only happen and sustain themselves when inside and outside champions for progress get together and work strategically for change.
Q What's the biggest 2012 race you're going to be involved in?
A Right now, we're focused on 2011. We're recruiting education champions to run for school boards and, of course, making as much legislative progress at the state level as possible. There are also elected state education chiefs in three of our states-Arizona, Oregon, and Washington.
Q What does your famous civil rights activist mom think about her son being part of an advocacy group that is okay with charters?
A I'm fairly sure she's incredibly proud of all her children.
Q One last question. Are you sending your boys to public school or private?