Developing Strategic Coalitions: Lessons from Milwaukee’s School Choice Coalition

DEFINING A STRATEGIC COALITION is simple. Building and maintaining a strategic coalition is far more difficult. Years of experience working with the Milwaukee school choice coalition demonstrate some fundamental principles.

These principles are critical if one is serious about moving from a discussion of philosophical merit to successful political action. The political scene differs vastly from the marketplace of ideas.

Political success requires unity. Achieving unity is perhaps the most difficult task of all in generating a vital and successful strategic coalition. It takes substantial effort, particularly in the early life of a coalition, to create that unity and to develop an effective style of operation.

The Milwaukee coalition has worked together since the early 1990s. It helped to expand parent choice in 1995 and to strengthen charter school laws for Milwaukee in 1997. In 1999, it helped elect a slate of five reform candidates to the Milwaukee School Board. That board now has a 7-2 majority of members who want excellent public schools but who also believe parents deserve educational choice.

Let us define terms. A strategic coalition is a coalition that is effective politically on a sustained basis. It gets results over time. It is durable.

Sustainability is vital to success. We are not in a short-term fight. Our opponents use a three-prong strategy to defeat us. They try to block legislation. When we prevail, they take us to court – not just once, but over and over. And they try to smother our victories through regulation.

Consequently, school choice supporters face formidable odds. Our opponents are tenacious, relentless, single-minded, and well-financed. They have a highly developed infrastructure at the local, state and national level. And they focus on a single goal: to stop school choice.

We, in contrast, are a loose federation of people who don’t always agree, whose resources are limited, and who too often forget the importance of unity. Our opponents exploit these weaknesses. To defeat them requires that we work overtime to reduce risk and improve the prospects of success.

We win with a strong coalition whose members develop key traits. They set clear goals. They value focus and unity of purpose. They function as a team. They work to include, not exclude others, a challenge when coalition members may not agree on any issue other than school choice. They act effectively because they trust each other. That trust is essential and it is earned or lost by each individual.

Key Elements of a Strong Coalition

Maintaining a strong moral theme. A powerful message is the philosophical glue that allows members to put other baggage aside. People want to work on causes larger than their own self-interest. Issues of justice and equity – those that drive most supporters of parent choice – are intense motivators and attract people who are driven to get something done. When the going gets tough, the strong moral theme keeps people going. Ultimately, it also moves votes.

Building diverse membership. A diverse coalition is powerful. There is very high value in a coalition whose members cross political, racial, religious, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. That is the case in Milwaukee where parents, business leaders, community activists, Democrats and Republicans, and educators fight side by side for more parent choice. Such strange bedfellows cause legislators to take notice. They reevaluate their views when an issue draws more than conventional support. Such a coalition also flusters opponents who want to demonize supporters and enhances the coalition’s strength for the long term.

Agreeing on the rules of the road. Just because coalition members agree on an issue does not mean they automatically fall into line and work as a team. A coalition needs to follow the rules of the road. Stay united. Focus on the goal. Don’t shoot at your friends. Don’t allow your opponents to exploit disagreements. In all cases, send the best messenger – the one who truly can convince – to tell your story. Trust is essential. Unity, clear direction, and the effective use of resources are often the only tools you may have against your opposition.

Holding members accountable for results. A strategic coalition is like a complex construction project. It needs a project manager – not a dictator – but someone who binds the group together and manages the work. The project manager is responsible for strategies, work plans, schedules, and budgets and seeing to it that tasks are completed. In short, every coalition needs a “project nag.”

Recruiting Coalition Members

Establish necessary conditions. An understanding that a problem exists is a necessary condition of recruitment. People won’t enlist in a coalition, accept tough assignments, and undertake years of grinding effort unless they understand the severity of a problem and they see a remedy they like. Without that same understanding, most legislators won’t take a stand that they consider politically perilous. This requires education – an effort that may prove time-consuming. But you cannot skip this step.

Identify enlightened self-interests. People work for reasons that are important to them. To recruit successfully, you must find out what moves people. There are many worthy motives. Define the enlightened self-interests of your recruits and appeal to those self-interests.

Work on best prospects. Good organizing is built on personal relationships. Look for strong individuals with good standing in their communities – people who do what they say they will do, who are committed to your agenda, and who can bring others to the table. Make sure that organizations you enlist are active, focused, and courageous. Work to expand your membership, but don’t let the perpetually uncommitted deplete your energy.

Recruit for the cause. Recruit with a strong moral theme, an appeal to self-interest, and the prospect of success. Give people a vision that they can accomplish something great and are part of a crusade. Are they committed to the cause? Will they make it a top priority? Will they use their resources, political capital, and name to achieve a specific goal? Will they function as a member of a team? Quality is much more important than the number of names you have on a list. Look for people who really want to be with you for the long term as well as when the going gets rough.

Agree to respect differences. Make an early agreement to respect each other’s differences. Don’t apply litmus tests on other issues. Welcome everyone who is willing to focus on the goal. Expect teamwork despite differences.

Organizing the Work

Define a specific goal. Assess the self-interests of the coalition and decide which of them is politically feasible. Based upon member interviews, develop this information and analyze what will work to advance your goal. Agreement on the goal is critical. Without it, your coalition will not function well at crunch time.

Assess your resources. Your opponents have many more resources. You must use your own effectively. Assess them. Conduct interviews. Question your membership: Do they have mailing lists? Active members? Printing facilities? Relationships with legislators? Financial resources? What do they need to be more effective?

Give voice to those without political power. Bring those without perceived power into the debate – parents, in the case of school choice – and give them a real seat at the table. Often they will become the coalition’s best messengers because they give issues a human face and true meaning through their personal stories.

Organize the coalition. This is demanding work. You must educate members or potential members; identify the true activists; give them a real seat at the table; and communicate effectively and often. You can organize at three levels of commitment: 1) A small group of very capable individuals who can organize, testify, and visit legislators; 2) a larger group of people who organize rallies, write letters, and attend hearings; and 3) an even larger group who are simply just willing to turn out.

Establish Accountability Measures. This means that someone is responsible for getting results. The best way to do this is through detailed work plans, regular staff meetings, master task lists and more task lists. Such methods are disciplinary tools. Without them, time passes and too little is accomplished. The goal for a school choice coalition that wants publicly financed parent choice is enough votes to enact a program. This means that every task on the list should focus on this goal.

What Can Go Wrong?

Supporters can’t agree on a specific goal. Too often, supporters of school choice back different legislative proposals. Opponents love this because it gives nervous legislators – the “mushy middle” – cover to vote against you while they profess to support parent choice. It also saps coalition energy.

Coalition members fight in public. Public disagreements force members to spend valuable time on internal issues. Opponents prevail through the classic “divide and conquer” strategy. Solve all your problems within the family.

The plan is poorly executed. When coalition members are busy with other issues and no one is responsible for results, poor oversight allows deadlines to pass. Too little work gets done. Lack of progress breeds frustration.

The coalition announces premature victory. Announcing grand plans prior to laying the groundwork activates opponents and gives them time to prepare to defeat you. We worked for an entire year in Milwaukee before our plans to expand parent choice became public. That proved to be a huge advantage. Do your homework quietly, gets results and then claim victory.

You fail to send the best messenger. Egos get in the way of sound tactics. Some people who should stay in the background just can’t do it. This allows opponents to demonize the effort and undercut its credibility.

Coalition members compete for credit. Seeking individual or organizational credit kills trust and undermines teamwork. Victory produces enough credit for everyone. Focus on getting results.

The methods we’ve used in Milwaukee to expand parent choice can be used to advance other issues. Our lesson is simple. With a powerful message, a clear goal, the ability to function as a disciplined team – and some luck along the way – a small group of determined people can achieve very positive results.

Ms. Mitchell is President of the American Education Reform Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Foundation works to advance public policy that empowers parents to choose the best schools for their children.