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Lesson 7.7

Politics and Philanthropy:
Power players of the Education System

The power players in education are…

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There are many participants in the sausage factory that makes education policy.

The system is multi-tiered, with local, county, state and Federal elements. Beyond the formal decision structure, however, elected officials and legislators are influenced, counseled, advised and lobbied by a disorderly bunch of interest organizations, researchers, philanthropies and regular folks.

Who actually gets heard? This lesson attempts to explain.

Money, and the strange power of uncertainty

The education system involves a lot of money, as we will discuss in Chapter 8. Funding systems in education try to be boring. Predictable. Certain. Almost all of the money flows based on rules that are more or less set in stone, or at least in policy. Funding can vary significantly, but mostly because of changes in economic conditions, not so much based on things you can control. (More simply: "You get what you get, and you don't get upset!")

Compared to total expenditures, the dollars that philanthropists donate to education are tiny. They are influential because they are uncertain.

Like the reliable sons in the parable of the prodigal son, "normal" funding can be taken for granted. Because these dollars are reliable, they are uninteresting.

Lobbying organizations, philanthropies and think tanks can influence education systems in part because they aren't reliable. They can bring funding, attention, and talent to projects that can't or won't be prioritized through normal channels. In context, the amount of money involved is tiny. Even the Gates Foundation accounts for a tiny speck of the total expenditures for education each year. Like the prodigal son, however, these funders are not dependable. Their favor cannot be taken for granted. It comes with strings and must be earned.

Uncertain dollars motivate action exactly because they are uncertain. Action is necessary to get them. Economists refer to this as the power of the marginal dollar.

Education donors, researchers and lobbyists are people, not cartoonish puppet masters. The point of this lesson is to highlight some of the organizations, involving actual humans, that are trying to help school systems through their modest but influential work on the margins.

Lobbyists: The CTA (and others)

By far the largest and loudest education-related advocacy organization in the state of California is the California Teachers Association (CTA). Period. But they have plenty of company in Sacramento: the state's official directory of registered lobbying organizations is a document more than a thousand pages long. It includes about 300 organizations that classify themselves as education-related.

The Referee: The LAO

If there were any official referee in the chaos of education policymaking, it would be the nonpartisan Legislative Analysis Office (LAO). The LAO's small team serves for California a role similar to the US Congressional Budget Office — it advises the legislature. Its voice is authoritative, but quiet. Their reports, although technical, are open to the public — and they are surprisingly readable. When a policy question erupts with controversy, the LAO's site is a good place to look for a cool-headed presentation of the facts.

Interest Organizations

A vast number of organizations officially play a role in the development of education policy in California through lobbying efforts. They include:

Interest Organizations
The Teachers Unions: California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT)
The California School Employees Association (CSEA), which represents non-teachers working in schools.
The California School Boards Association (CSBA), which represents the interests of school boards.
The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), which represents school principals and district leaders.
EdVoice, which provides training on education issues to staffers in Sacramento. EdVoice is active in advocacy for charter schools.
The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), which advocates on behalf of the charter school movement.
California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA)
American Association of School Superintendents (AASA)
California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), which promotes biliteracy and multicultural competency.
California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents employees of CSUs (California State Universities)
California School Nurses Organization (CSNO), which supports professional school health employees.
California Association of School Counselors (CASC)

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive - please add your comments to call attention to others!

The California State PTA plays a unique role in education advocacy, representing a significant but unknown fraction of California's public school communities. In order to be affiliated with the PTA, schools must organize with specific conditions and bylaws, and pay a small amount of dues to support the regional and state organizations. As part of PTA’s mission "to secure adequate laws for the care and protection of children and youth,” their volunteers monitor legislation in Sacramento and in local communities, provide legislative training for volunteers throughout California, and work to identify areas where additional legislation for children is needed. (CAPTA has been a supporter of

Many of the organizations above are "in the room" when education policy is being written in Sacramento. (Indeed, these organizations help overworked legislative staff by providing specific wording suggestions for bills and regulations.)

Non-profit Organizations

They aren't the only ones, however. Many organizations with a substantial influence on policy decisions in education do not employ lobbyists at all, or hire them very sparingly. Here are just a few of them:

Non-profit education organizations


Advocates for the policy interests of children. Part of their work includes lobbying.

Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE)

Makes research-based education policy recommendations.

Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC)

Equips policymakers with public opinion polling and other research on topics related to education.


Tracks research and policy work about education in California and translates it into a form that general readers can use.

Education Trust-West

Advocates for equity in California education.

Pivot Learning Partners

Suopports schools and school districts that are struggling to innovate out-of-the-box solutions.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Works to get children the resources they need to succeed in every aspect of their development.

Ballmer Group

Partners with governments, community members, and nonprofits to improve economic mobility and educational access for those in poverty.

Walton Family Foundation

Works to close the opportunity gap and increase achievement.

Families in Action

Empowers families to advocate for access to quality schools

The 74

Provides non-partisan, fact-based news about education and education policy.


These and many other non-profit organizations depend on foundations and donors to support their work - which has its own consequences. Private foundations can affect state education policies by way of what they provide funding for. They can commission research directly or through their grantees and they can make sure the findings get lawmaker’s attention. By doing so they bring attention to issues they care about, in the process influencing the legislative agenda both in Sacramento and in Washington D.C.

The power and influence of these foundations becomes clear when you look at some examples, their recent concerns, and the policy changes that resulted.

  • Decades ago the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation became interested in reforming California’s school funding system and supported various initiatives to help make that happen. The state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula traces straight back to those efforts.
  • The James Irvine Foundation supported a high school reform effort called Linked Learning that is now funded through a special state program.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions to develop, research, and promote its education reform ideas. One example is a belief in stronger teacher evaluations, which have been implemented in many states.
  • The California Endowment’s concerns about the disproportionately harsh school punishments dealt to African American and Hispanic youth ultimately led to a re-examination of zero-tolerance policies in local districts and at the state level.
  • The Stuart Foundation has long worked on issues confronting foster youth in California, a group of students that were specifically targeted for extra funding in the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. (The Stuart Foundation has also provided critical support for Ed100 as one of its first funders, and it provides critically important support to EdSource)

A national organization called Grantmakers for Education convenes philanthropic leaders; thier conferences provide interesting insight into which causes these powerful organizations might focus on next.

In communities throughout California, local education foundations also wield influence, but it’s targeted to their local districts rather than state policymakers. The California Consortium of Education Foundations is a coordinating and technical support organization for hundreds of local foundations. And of course PTAs and other parent organizations like booster clubs collectively contribute millions to local schools. If you want the inside scoop about funders for education, the best source is probably Inside Philanthropy, if you have a few hundred bucks to spend for a subscription (we don’t.)

The lists above can hardly be considered complete. Please contribute your comments to help bring attention to other organizations that would be of interest to Ed100 readers.

The next lesson looks at the changing landscape of school accountability.

Updated August 2017, August 2021, October 2021


Which ONE of the following statements about California’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) is TRUE?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Shamrock27 May 7, 2020 at 2:20 am
Thanks to Ed100 now, I aware of several organizations I hadn't hear of! I am very interested in read the reports from California's Legislative Analyst Office LAO. Which is one of the organizations that are new to me.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren September 13, 2018 at 6:48 pm
Today, I attended Ed Trust-West's Education Equity Forum. I would not have known it existed without Thank you Ed100!
user avatar
Caryn September 13, 2018 at 7:42 pm
Hi Sonya, this is music to our ears. We love to hear Ed100 graduates engaging with amazing advocacy agencies and Ed Trust-West is one of our favorites! How was the forum? Btw, did you hear the announcement about Jeff Bezos contributing 2 billion dollars towards helping homeless families and supporting early childhood education? I know people have strong feelings about him but...did I mention 2 billion dollars?!
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 4, 2017 at 7:54 am
Charter schools enjoy strong backing in Sacramento and in local elections, according to this description by EdSource
user avatar
GSG April 23, 2015 at 1:58 pm
I will definitely use the resources or ideas listed.
user avatar
g4joer6 April 21, 2015 at 5:41 pm
Nice to have these resources listed in one place. Thank you
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 21, 2015 at 9:51 pm
Thanks, g4joer -- another list that may interest you is in Ed100's final lesson. (It really IS the final lesson, but we continue adding perspectives and depth through our blog.) I am continually impressed at just how many amazing organizations, large and small, exist (or, usually, subsist) in the education arena. Part of the reason I enjoy working with Full Circle Fund is that we get to learn about them and help a few each year.
©2003-2023 Jeff Camp
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