You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 7.7

Education Power Players:
Politics and Philanthropy

The power players in education are…

hero image

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 an un-orderly system of interest organizations, researchers, philanthropies and others.

By far the largest and loudest advocacy organization in the state of California is the California Teachers Association, 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

In all this tumult the official referee, if one can be said to exist, is the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), a small team that serves for California a role similar to the US Congressional Budget Office. The LAO advises the legislature. Its voice is authoritative, but quiet. Its reports, though technical, are open to the public - and they are surprisingly readable. When a policy question has gone white-hot with controversy, the LAO's site is a good place to look for 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:

  • 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 School Association (CCSA), which advocates on behalf of the charter school movement.
  • California County Superintendents Educational Services Association

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

The California State PTA plays a unique role in voluntary education advocacy, representing nearly 900,000 members. As part of PTA’s mission "to secure adequate laws for the care and protection of children and youth,” 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 is 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 are not 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:

  • ChildrenNow serves as a lobbyist, officially, for children's interests in California. (But most of their work is not lobbying.)
  • Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an organization of education-focused researchers, 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.
  • EdSource 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 supports schools and school districts that are struggling to innovate out of the box solutions.


These and many other non-profit organizations depend on foundations and donors to support their work. That has its own consequences. Private foundations can affect state education policies through 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.

  • Nearly a decade 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. Although the foundation changed its focus a few years ago, the state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula traces straight back to those efforts.
  • The James Irvine Foundation has 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 is now a national movement.
  • The California Endowment’s concerns about the disproportionately harsh school punishments meted out 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.)

A national organization called Grantmakers for Education convenes philanthropic leaders; its conferences serve as an interesting crystal ball for predicting what 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 School 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.

The Strange Power of Uncertainty

The dollars that philanthropies give to education are tiny compared to total expenditures each year. They are influential because they are uncertain.

Dollars that are uncertain, that must be earned, motivate action specifically because they are uncertain. Economists refer to this as the "marginal" dollar. Philanthropies draw their influence partially through their "marginal" quality. The amount of money philanthropy gives to education is relatively insignificant. Even the Gates Foundation is a tiny speck when compared to the total expenditures for education each year. Why is it so influential? In part its power comes from its discretionary freedom. School districts receive most of their funding without having to do anything specific to qualify for the funds.

Because these dollars are reliable, and safe, they are uninteresting. Like the reliable sons in the parable of the prodigal son, they are easy to take for granted. But those extra, prodigal dollars? Those are interesting, indeed.

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


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

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

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.
©2003-2021 Jeff Camp
Design by SimpleSend

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Welcome Back!

Login with Email

We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to

Share via Email

Get on Board!
Learn how California's School System works so you can make a difference.
Our free lessons are short, easy to read, and up to date. Each lesson you complete earns a ticket for your school. You could win $1,000 for your PTA.

Join Ed100

Already a member? Login

Or Create Account