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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Adding muscle to education reform: Ted Lempert's EdVoice looks to transform California education Adding muscle to education reform: Ted Lempert's EdVoice looks to transform California education (July 25, 2001)

By Tomas Matza

Almanac Staff Writer

A lot of things changed after Ted Lempert was forced out of the California Assembly by term limits in December. He went from having a staff of 11 to having to hunt down his own paperclips. And he moved out of two spacious offices to a small shared room scarcely large enough for a desk.

What remains unchanged, however, is his involvement in public policy. As a legislator one of his focuses was education reform.

Most famously, he authored a bill in 1998 that strengthened charter school law and made it easier for parents and teachers to start charter schools, which are public but are exempt from most state Education Code regulations. This legislation also increased the number of charters that could be started each year, and is widely viewed as a reform that puts outside pressure on the education system.

Mr. Lempert has also been interested and involved in other educational reforms, particularly those that offer parents a wider range of choices, or give schools more local control, more flexibility to hire (and fire) teachers and more options for facilities.

Now, at the age of 40, Mr. Lempert, who also is a San Mateo County Board of Education trustee, has turned all of his attention to California's schools. EdVoice, a citizen-based education advocacy group that he founded last February, is his newest pursuit, and it is poised to be the only statewide education lobby of its kind.

Amazingly, what started as a one-man operation has grown to a Redwood Shores-based, full-fledged organization with a staff of six that includes the Gore-Lieberman campaign manager for the Western states, and a satellite office in Sacramento. Already EdVoice has sponsored three bills that, according to Mr. Lempert, have good shots at becoming law.

Through its Web site, EdVoice has amassed 1,000 members who have flooded Sacramento with 8,000 letters, he says. It has an operating budget of $1.4 million, a star-studded policy board consisting of prominent figures in the education and business arenas, and former government officials _ mostly moderates from both sides of the aisle.

Needless to say, Mr. Lempert, once again, has an office large enough to hang a few pictures. And all this has been accomplished in a mere five months.

The question is, what will EdVoice mean for education in California?
Filling a critical void

According to Mr. Lempert, a former Democratic Assembly member representing an area that stretched from Palo Alto to Foster City, the idea for EdVoice came from the observation that many of his constituents, gravely concerned about California schools, lacked the means to speak up on specific legislation because they didn't know how, or didn't have the time to wade through government language.

"I would get a lot of questions about education issues as I went through the district," he says, "but I didn't receive that many letters and e-mails about specific legislation, and it wasn't for a lack of interest. The problem was that there really wasn't any way for active community members to find out what was going on in Sacramento and then have a relatively easy way to make their position known and have a voice."

Over time he came to believe that this was a "critical void" in California politics, and the idea for EdVoice was hatched. He started talking more about the idea with other legislators, describing a grassroots lobby group that would be similar to groups like the AARP and Sierra Club, only on a state level.

But he says his idea was met with measured enthusiasm: Great idea, but how do you get it off the ground? Experience showed that money, not good ideas, was what eluded similar efforts.

Enter Reed Hastings, CEO of NetFlix.com, Inc., current president of the California State Board of Education, and major backer of Propositions 26 and 39_measures that sought to lower the voter-threshold required to pass school bonds (the latter, which set 55 percent as the threshold, passed). Mr. Lempert had an "informal series of conversations" with Mr. Hastings, and those conversations were the deal makers.

Mr. Hastings, and then John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital firm, gave Mr. Lempert a half-million dollars in seed money to get the idea off the ground. Five months later, EdVoice has what he needs to show other prospective donors that the idea is not only off the ground, but running well.
A future major player?

One of the more striking phrases in EdVoice's literature is "political muscle." It implies an aggressive form of advocacy that, according to Mr. Lempert, has been absent among education advocacy groups.

"I think the education community has been too shy politically," Mr. Lempert says. "So many people care about education and yet during budget time the attitude is, 'If you can help us a little more that would be great,' " he adds, crouching and speaking pleadingly.

"But other non-education groups are like, 'What do you mean?' So by political muscle," he says, pounding his fist on the table, "we mean a little more hard-core advocacy. Education should not be apologetic."

Two things have given EdVoice the ability to take this unapologetic position: technology and money.

First, today's speedy Internet connections and the ubiquitous use of e-mail have made the electronic-action-alert approach to advocacy tremendously efficient.

"The Internet gets over-hyped in some respects, but when it comes to advocacy, politics and government, it's underutilized," says the EdVoice CEO.

The Web site serves as the basis for the alert system. By visiting www.edvoice.net, people can become members for free, then receive notices whenever critical votes on EdVoice-sponsored legislation are upcoming. With a few mouse clicks, a pre-written letter of support can be sent to the appropriate legislators or downloaded, modified and put on new letterhead.

But more than building its grassroots network, EdVoice is distinguished by its financial health and its list of policy board members, which reads like a who's-who of California commerce, politics and schools. With prominent businessmen like Mr. Hastings and Mr. Doerr behind it, EdVoice is in the enviable position of having cash for doing more than simply staying open, something that many other education organizations have lacked.

Significantly, EdVoice has been able to use those dollars to hire a prominent lobby firm whose political savvy is also used to work for Fortune 500 companies in Sacramento.

Come September, EdVoice hopes to turn to other donors to start a political action committee, or PAC. While still in the development stage, Mr. Lempert says, the PAC will make campaign contributions to like-minded politicians running for office, and keep a "legislator scorecard" on education.

Stanford professor of education and EdVoice board member Mike Kirst puts it more bluntly: "What's interesting here is that this group has signaled that it's going to be active in politicians' campaigns both positively and negatively. Until now, there has been no citizens group that has said, 'That's the kind of operation we want to run, where we reward our friends and punish our enemies. We're willing to get into political campaigns to do that; we know how to do that and we have a stable of people advising us who know about campaign operations.' "
Fixing what's broken

All of this political sophistication and muscle, money and technology is, according to Mr. Lempert, being put towards one thing: ensuring that "every child gets a great education throughout the state."

Mr. Lempert, a native Californian, grew up with schools that he says were far better than today's. "In the heyday of California's education system in the 1960s, two-thirds of the money and two-thirds of the decisions were made locally. That has totally flipped. It's not the only reason why our system has gone somewhat downhill, but it's one of the reasons," he says.

Currently, he says, politicians are "rewarded for doing the wrong thing. Legislators and the government get credit for bills, but the problem is that they become a mandate on every school, whether they're in East Palo Alto, Atherton, Eureka or Fresno. I plead guilty myself. We've all done that because the system is set up this way. What EdVoice is trying to do is provide some political support and really put some pressure on folks to do the right thing _ and that is not to come up with mandates but shift control locally."

Another major problem is that in terms of spending on education California was fourth per capita in 1954, whereas now, adjusted for cost of living, it's in the bottom 10, he says. So each year around budget time, EdVoice will try to ensure that more money is allocated for education.

Overall, the EdVoice vision for education reform calls for more resources and flexibility for schools, better teachers, and more choices for parents. And what undergirds that vision is a trend towards more decentralization.

"If you had a situation in California where teachers were treated as a profession so that you doubled their salaries and made it easier to get rid of a bad teacher; where principals had more control over staff to build a team; where schools had the flexibility to meet the high standards the state sets; and where parents were treated as consumers and had different choices within the public education system, I think you'd have great education," Mr. Lempert says.

The four bills that EdVoice has sponsored so far reflect this vision. For example, Senate Bill 792, authored by Sen. Byron Sher (D-San Jose), calls for removing barriers to entering the teaching profession by creating fast-track credentialing. EdVoice says that there is a wellspring of untapped talent with subject expertise that could be brought into classrooms if the number of hoops required to get temporary certification were reduced.

Another teacher-related bill, SB 572 authored by Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), has been put on hold due to the tightness of the budget this year. But in its early form it would have offered salary incentives to good teachers who go to low-performing schools and other forms of differential pay.

The other two bills relate to facilities. SB 709, authored by Senator Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) would allow schools to use non-school-built commercial buildings that were deemed safe by the state architect. Currently only charter schools are allowed to do this.

Finally, SB 740 (O'Connell) would provide funding to charter schools for facilities, addressing a huge obstacle that many charters face. At the same time, the bill would also crack down on so-called "charter school abusers" by holding accountable home-school charters that are alleged to have used state funds for personal gain, or simply did not provide their students with a good education.

All three of the active bills are moving through Sacramento, and Mr. Lempert is optimistic about their passage.
Voices of opposition

It's difficult to find groups staunchly opposed to EdVoice. No doubt this is partially due to the fact that the group's history is so short. However, in some cases EdVoice has had to iron out compromises with groups previously opposed.

Both the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the Credential Counselors and Analysts of California (CCAC) initially spoke out against SB 792, the credentialing bill. According to a CTA press release, an earlier draft of the bill would have "reduce[d] the state's rigorous teacher credentialing standards."

CCAC, meanwhile, said schools would have had too much leeway in setting the standards for entry. After negotiations, though, both are no longer opposed. (The bill is now known as SB 57 (Scott) following the political wrangling.)

Some critics and journalists have tried to pit EdVoice against the teachers unions. But, argues Mr. Lempert, EdVoice will likely agree with them on some issues, and disagree on others.

Proving the point that his organization resists easy categorization, Mr. Lempert mentions that a main opponent to an EdVoice-sponsored bill is CANEC, the charter lobby group in California. That might seem surprising, given Mr. Lempert's involvement in the charter movement. But CANEC has expressed strong opposition to SB 740.

Calling it "devastating" and "divisive," CANEC Executive Director Sue Bragato says that SB 740 pits the charter school community against itself. She acknowledges the importance of giving charters money for facilities, but says the legislation is "more destructive than a help" because it reduces the state funding for non-classroom-based charter schools to pay for the facilities. This bill "robs Peter to pay Paul," she says.

"We support all charter schools. We support high-quality charter schools, and if charter schools are not working, they should be closed down no matter how they deliver their instruction. But we take a broader look at what a quality charter school is, whereas it seems that EdVoice takes a more limited perspective," says Ms. Bragato.

Mr. Lempert counters that the bill would target only "the documented serious abuses," which would have the triple benefit of closing a charter school loophole, giving other home-schools more credibility, and giving facility money to charter schools, particularly urban schools.

He adds that there are 16 charter schools that have indicated support, as well as "key charter school leaders."

"I think they're very wrong on this issue and they're not focused on how this actually helps charter schools. And it highlights a problem that a group like CANEC has, which is that it has to answer to a constituency."

Despite CANEC's opposition, Mr. Lempert does not see EdVoice as being necessarily combative with the other major education groups in the state. "We're finding there's a lot more consensus on education policy than people realize. You tend to have an extreme left and an extreme right in disagreement, but the broad middle ground is where not only most Californians are, but also a lot of politicians regardless of party."

However, whether the group can remain above the fray by advocating what it has termed "common-sense issues" while at the same time flexing its ever-growing political muscle remains to be seen.

So far EdVoice's agenda has been met with relatively little opposition, but the group is, of course, only five months old. Observers will have to wait until the next legislative session begins in September to see what bills EdVoice unveils, and whose feathers get ruffled in the process.

Mr. Lempert says he will remain its CEO for the coming years. He is eyeing another bid for Sacramento _ this time for a seat in the Senate, critiques of bureaucracy notwithstanding. But because of redistricting, that run may not be until 2006. (Depending on where district lines are drawn, the San Carlos resident would be eligible for either Byron Sher's vacant seat in 2004, or Jackie Speier's seat in 2006.)

What will EdVoice look like then?

"We sent 8,000 letters in five months and got three bills up," Mr. Lempert says proudly. "Five years from now I would hope that we'd have gotten a number of key points of our agenda through. And we could be talking 80,000 or 100,000 letters, if not more."

Sacramento postal workers: Be warned.


 

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