For many unions, the policy changes the newer groups typically support—staffing based on performance measures and the expansion of charter schools, among others—tilt the balance of power away from teachers and unions and toward administrators and funders who, they argue, are less well-versed in the needs of teachers, students, and parents.
"You have people who don't know anything about the issues, about how teachers are evaluated or compensated," said Karen M. White, the political director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. "When you have people wading into a debate with a very simple message that may test well in a poll, but is a lot more complicated than that, it's a real concern for us."
Others view the entrance on the political scene of such groups as Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, and StudentsFirst as a welcome development—one that adds fresh voices in a field that, at the local and state level at least, has been largely dominated by unions.
"The old paradigm in education is that nobody votes for school board members—you cannot even identify who they are—and that you have a school system dominated by the professionals," said Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of education at Brown University. "I think the arrival of these new organizations multiplies the centers of activity and influence, so there might be broader opportunities for the public to get access."
A degree of tension between the unions and such groups appears inevitable.
As the chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, Michelle A. Rhee quarreled with the teachers' union over a contract and her movement to purge the system of allegedly underperforming teachers. Now, as the founder of StudentsFirst, she has publicly supported reducing teachers' collective bargaining rights to wages and benefits. Her willingness to work with Republican governors, including Florida's Rick Scott, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, and Ohio's John Kasich—all three of whom have supported or espoused similar measures—has infuriated the unions.
Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee affiliated with the group Education Reform Now, has taken a gentler tack overall with the unions, but still presents itself as offering politicians an alternative constituency. It also favors some policies, such as limited use of private school vouchers, that the unions have long opposed.
Whether specifically set up to counterbalance the unions' political power or not, such groups' political tactics are similar to those used by the teachers' unions.
Like unions, the groups expend money on lobbying and have set up PACs and other political organizations to affect campaigns. Like the unions' general operating funds, the groups' 501(c)4 advocacy—through their entities set up under that part of the federal tax code—and sometimes their political dollars can be allocated as needed to various locations.
And the similarities cut both ways. The same campaign-finance court rulings that, since 2010, have given the national advocacy groups a stock of new tools—such as an expanded ability to make independent expenditures to influence campaigns—also apply to unions.
In 2010, for instance, the NEA created its own super PAC, a type of independent-expenditure group. Such expenditures cannot be coordinated with candidates, but can advocate for or against their election.
This year alone, the NEA funded the super PAC to the tune of $3 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending on federal campaigns. The American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, recently donated $1 million to the super PAC of the AFL-CIO labor coalition, of which it is a member.
Finally, Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, and, to a lesser extent, DFER, have followed in unions' footsteps in perfecting the process of candidate vetting through detailed questionnaires and interviews.
But teachers' unions point to what they view as a critical difference between their political work and that of the education advocacy organizations. They insist that their political spending represents the wishes of thousands of individual, dues-paying members who elect their union leaders, and that they are also tied to the grassroots through their connection to classrooms.
"I represent 110,000 members across the state who work in pre-K-12 education, and I think they have a much clearer and better understanding of the needs of the kids and communities than some of these organizations with a lot of money, email lists, and a website," said Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate.
Though some of the advocacy groups do have paying members, they also rely heavily on outside contributions from often wealthy individuals, some obscured by campaign-finance laws. ("New Players Wield Policy Clout In State-Level Legislative Battles,"May 16, 2012.) Union financing is somewhat more transparent, though unions, too, can funnel dollars through independent-expenditure accounts.
The relationship of the education advocacy groups to grassroots activity differs based on the organization. For one, their numbers are much more difficult to parse than the unions'.
StudentsFirst, for instance, claims to have 1.3 million members, each of whom has donated an average of $40. Individuals can become members through several channels, including by signing up at a live event; through outreach drives at college campuses; signing up on its website; signing the organization's pledge; or signing one of its petitions hosted on outside websites.
In the latter instance, some critics contend that StudentsFirst's petitions are designed to capture as many members as possible, thus inflating the totals.
Ric Brown, a professor at the Pratt Institute of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, in New York City, said that while signing an unrelated petition on the change.org website, the site presented him with a petition supporting higher pay for teachers, which he also signed. Only on closer inspection, he said, did he see that the petition was sponsored by StudentsFirst, whose policy goals he eschews.
"It was very deceptive," Mr. Brown said. "It would be very easy to collect a lot of members this way."
StudentsFirst officials dispute such accounts, saying that its petitions are clearly marked and that signatories can opt out of membership before signing, or cancel it afterwards.
Impressive membership numbers aside, some of the advocacy groups' grassroots efforts have been disputed. For example, StudentsFirst officials say that its members sent nearly 200,000 messages to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee shortly after committee leaders deleted mandatory teacher evaluations from a draft bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But a committee official said, "We did not receive anywhere close to that number of emails."
For Joe Williams, the executive director of DFER, part of the challenge lies precisely in learning how to engage with local stakeholders in the way that unions have traditionally done. "We've been much slower to be able to do grassroots activism; a number of 'reform'-slanted organizations have been heading this way for a while, but we don't have the infrastructure in places that the unions have had for 30 years," he said.
Political scientists see an opening for these newer groups to make their mark in that area.
"I think a case can be made that the unions, during a critical point, lost some of the vibrancy of their ties to the grassroots—parents and community groups—because they were getting by and large what they needed without really building those roots, and were uneasy about empowering parents relative to playing the card of their own professional expertise," said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"Some of the reformer groups that are pretty self-consciously at war with unions saw some softness there," he said.
Stand for Children, based in Portland, Ore., but with a presence in 10 states, differs somewhat from DFER and StudentsFirst in that it has the most experience with grassroots lobbying, having been active in raising money for schools since 1996.
The group counts approximately 240,000 supporters—volunteers who have attended at least one event or emailed a legislator on behalf of an issue, for instance. A smaller subset, known as "members," pay dues to the organization's (c)4 wing. Those dues make up 5 percent of Stand for Children's 501(c)4 revenue, compared with 22 percent from businesses and 73 percent from individuals, according to the organization's 2010 annual report.
Volunteers for the group are typically organized into school committees, larger teams, and then into local affiliates and chapters that, in theory, set their policy priorities independently.
"When we choose what issues to focus on, it's driven by the membership, not by a Stand employee or someone at the [Stand for Children's 501(c)3] Leadership Center," said Kim Strelchun, a volunteer with the Hillsboro, Ore., Stand for Children affiliate, who eventually ran for and won a seat on her school board. "That part of it is very grassroots. Not only are we very separate states, we are separate communities."
Yet the group's relatively recent, aggressive entry into state politics, specifically around teacher-quality issues such as evaluation, has raised the hackles of the teachers' unions—and led to observations, even among similar-minded advocates, that its tactics may be shifting.
"Stand does seem to be a bit caught in the tension between a bottom-up and top-down model," said Mr. Williams of DFER.
As recently as 2009, Stand for Children Massachusetts focused mainly on local tax overrides to raise funding for schools. This year, however, it is the primary sponsor of an initiative that appears poised to go on the ballot in November. The proposal would build on state regulations on teacher evaluations, completed in 2011, by attaching consequences, such as teacher tenure and layoff decisions, to the results of evaluation systems.
Mr. Toner of the MTA contends that Stand for Children, which had a member on the panel that wrote the regulations, is trying to take another bite at the apple without working with teachers.
"We used to work collaboratively when they were talking about improving resources for schools and supporting schools, but ... now, they're coming in with their own set of recommendations and are trying to impose it," he said.
But the executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts countered that the proposal is a necessary development in its work to ensure better instruction for low-income students.
"Even if you added up the [tax] overrides we had done and statewide campaign work on different ballot questions, it added up to about a billion and a half of new revenue in public schools, and yet the achievement gap is still roughly where it was," said Jason Williams, who is not related to Mr. Williams of DFER. "We feel very strongly it's not an either-or, that you have to be either completely for revenue, or completely for accountability or reform."
Overall membership numbers in the state remain steady, though some people have left the group as its policy focus has grown beyond revenue, acknowledged the Massachusetts group's Mr. Williams.
About 40 former members of Stand for Children Massachusetts have signed a letter protesting the group's engagement in the ballot initiative.
Stand for Children, in addition, came under scrutiny last year when its chief executive officer, Jonah Edelman, was caught on videotape claiming the organization had threatened to use $3 million in newly raised political funds in Illinois to coerce teachers' unions into accepting a teacher-evaluation bill. (In fact, the bill that ended up passing in the state was largely shaped by teachers' unions.)
Mr. Edelman later apologized, saying that his remarks didn't reflect the complexity of the bill or Stand for Children's approach to policy. But the incident remains a major point of criticism of the group by teachers' unions.
How to Respond
A handful of labor leaders say the relationships between the advocacy groups and unions are far more complicated than the often-supercharged rhetoric indicates.
Despite clashes in 2010 in Colorado, Stand for Children and the Colorado Education Association worked together on the implementation of the state's teacher-evaluation law, pressing to ensure that new evaluation systems are kept as uniform across districts as possible, noted Tony Salazar, the union's executive director.
"I talk to my colleagues across the nation a lot about this, and what I see is that the relationships [with the advocacy groups] are very, very different depending on what state you're in," Mr. Salazar said.
For unions whose relationships with the advocacy groups remain shaky, articulating a response to the groups' activities can be difficult. For one thing, some observers contend, they are struggling against the notion that they defend a failing status quo against positive changes pushed by the advocacy groups.
"One of the big successes of these groups has been to set up that dynamic, and it's a dynamic unions almost always end up on the losing end of," said Kevin G. Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (Mr. Welner also directs a policy group that receives funding from the NEA.)
It is a frustrating dynamic for some education observers, who note that research on the advocacy groups' policy agenda remains contested. For instance, charter schools vary widely in quality. And while research points to differences in students taught by high- vs. low-performing teachers, the long-term impact of teacher-evaluation systems that use test scores remains to be seen.
"Unions are castigated for not embracing the advocacy groups' policy agendas. Yet, given the tenuousness of much of the research, unions may have legitimate reasons for questioning some of the policy directions," said Julia Koppich, an independent consultant based in San Francisco who has written extensively about unions. "But no one seems to be listening."
Patrick J. McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., added that the unions' history of opposing many education overhaul efforts has left them vulnerable to that fate.
Perhaps in a bid to increase their reach, the national unions, too, are supporting grassroots organizations more aligned with their favored policies."I think that was the great tragedy of [the No Child Left Behind Act], the complete lack of real input the education establishment had, and it goes a long way to explaining the problems with the law," he said. "That tragedy continues today with teacher evaluations. But the fact that they didn't have a seat at the table was because they'd decided they'd rather fight everything than compromise."
The NEA has helped finance—though in relatively modest amounts—the New York City-based Class Size Matters, which now operates a parent-advocacy group with several chapters across the country called Parents Across America. Both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers supported the Save Our Schools March network. The groups oppose high-stakes testing and charter schools, among other policies.
And in Massachusetts, a grassroots organization highly critical of Stand for Children,Citizens for Public Schools, counts Mr. Toner of the MTA and Tom Gosnell, the president of the AFT's Boston Teachers' Union, among its board members.