Advocates Reflect on 2018 Election Wins, Challenges, and the Work Ahead
November 30, 2018

This past election cycle, education advocates across the country actively engaged in the political process. At least 16 PIE Network members in 10 different states and Washington, D.C. prioritized election engagement in 2018. (Network members can find further details via the PIE Network Member Advocacy & Policy database.) Advocates’ work took many different forms, but their energy focused on one central purpose: increasing momentum for positive change to education outcomes at the state or local level.

From city school board contests to gubernatorial races, 2018 midterm ballots produced a variety of different results for the education reform community. Below, advocates from two different organizations in two dramatically different political contexts share insights into their 2018 election cycle efforts, and break down what the results mean for their work moving forward.

Off to the Races in Illinois

by Ariel Johnson, Director of Government Affairs, Illinois Network of Charter Schools

INCS Action is a bipartisan organization that supports candidates who believe our most underserved children deserve high-quality education options. We offer a full suite of services to candidates, primarily through our independent expenditure committee, along with utilizing a PAC and 501(c)4. These three committees help us create robust, high-impact programs for candidates who are willing to defend and protect educational equity for the children who need it most.

In this year’s primary, INCS Action engaged in 15 races, touting 13 victories. Of those wins, we protected supportive incumbents and picked up several seats to increase our pro-charter majorities in the capitol. In a typical tier-one race, INCS Action makes an investment between $60,000 and $100,000 depending on the competitiveness of the race. That money is allocated for opposition research, polling, petitioning, canvassing, direct mail, targeted digital advertising, radio, television, and persuasion/ID/GOTV calls.

INCS Action has found that early work is critical to success.

We’re selective about the races we engage in, and complete the necessary early research to ensure a candidate is viable through the end of the election cycle.

Of course, the primary is just one part of the cycle. Success in the general election is essential to preserving the foundation established in the primary. In Illinois, the 2018 general election epitomized the “blue wave.” For the education reform community, this meant the loss of long-time allies who have been vocal proponents of school choice in the face of staunch opposition.

While INCS Action can boast wins in 27 of 35 races, this cycle was not without challenges. Each race was far more expensive than what we budgeted. Both the top of the ticket gubernatorial race and national politics played a major role in voter turnout, swing voters, and the competitiveness of races in otherwise benign districts.

Looking ahead to 2019, INCS Action will participate in local aldermanic and mayoral elections for the first time. Chicago’s open mayoral seat will have major reverberations on our state legislative and local district policies. Similarly, the aldermanic races will disrupt the status quo in Chicago’s City Council, ending flippant policies that negatively affect the charter community.

For the first time, with INCS Action’s work, charter school families will have an organization dedicated to backing their educational interests. And, 2019 city elections will set the foundation for implementing an even bigger electoral cycle in 2020. This work is tough, but it is some of the most important work we do to preserve high quality education options for our most underserved families.

Beyond One Million in Tennessee

by Brent Easley, Executive Director, TennesseeCAN

Regardless of your political affiliation, the 2018 election season provided some good fuel for conversation. More importantly, there were key lessons to be learned from engagement in the Tennessee elections.

First, TennesseeCAN’s work was impactful due in part to our ability to review candidates in a more robust way than ever before. This included 1) early in-person meetings; 2) meaningful candidate survey completions; 3) detailed background research; and 4) on-the-ground intelligence gathering.

The second lesson is that we win more often when we run disciplined, data-driven efforts and stay on message.

TennesseeCAN made it our goal this election season to reach one million voter contacts. This number matters for two reasons. First, it means that we meaningfully tracked every call, mail piece, text message, door knock, etc., in each race we were active in. Second, it matters because it was coupled with additional data in each race. We strategically selected each voter group and then were able to document that we followed up with them in the way we planned.

The results of those contacts provided us with a real-time, multifaceted data flow that allowed us to make strategic decisions—from adjusting a message to re-allocating resources, or narrowing down our audiences, thanks to our ability to know where races stood at any given moment. This is a real-life instance of data becoming a difference maker, as we use what we know to make sure our work is as effective as possible.

Moving into 2019, the year ahead will provide an opportunity to apply these lessons to our issue advocacy work as well.

Ensuring every student has access to a high-quality education is the focus of our work, and we must be as effective as possible with every bit of the resources we spend.

Is your organization looking ahead to elections in 2019 and beyond? Reach out to connect with advocates at INCS or TennesseeCAN.

Ryan Cantrell

Ryan is PIE Network's Senior Director, Charters, Choice, and Political Engagement

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