A Six-Way Advocacy Partnership

By: Mark Athitakis

How a group of associations set aside their differences to support legislation. [Titled "Common Ground" in the print edition.]

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, knew why the bills it supported had such a tough time in the statehouse. Other education-related organizations didn't always agree with MTSBA, and legislators made hay of the conflict.

"They really got a kick out of pitting us against one another," Melton says. "There was this popular conversation stopper, which was essentially, 'If you can't agree [on the best legislative approach] among the teachers and the elected school boards, how can you ask us to choose?'"

So two years ago MTSBA decided to make outreach to other organizations a priority, identifying common ground and building a legislative agenda around it. Under the banner of the Montana K–12 Vision Group, the association gathered input from five other state education associations, their members, and parents to draft a series of recommendations that could work as a school finance and reform bill.

The Challenge

Arriving at a strategic focus that supported everybody's interests was tough, Melton says. "We were able to put aside a number of tactical efforts that had divided us: rural and urban schools or management and labor," Melton says. "We were able to focus on both the pursuit of adequate funding and increased flexibility for increased academic achievement."

Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association (MREA), was at first a skeptic, but he found early conversations motivating. "We realized that 95 percent of the time we're unified in our goals and priorities," he says. "It's the little stuff on the edges that has always divided us."

MTSBA was careful not to dictate to the coalition, just to hold weekly strategy meetings and share its experience in strategic planning. Each organization took ownership of a particular element of the legislation—funding, student achievement, use of oil and gas revenue—and created factsheets for legislators. They also produced individual videos on each element, impressing the state superintendant enough that she recorded her own video supporting the bill.

The effort paid off: The bill passed through the statehouse, and the governor signed it into law in May. But Melton isn't defining the success of the coalition based on one bill. "We sort of surprised ourselves," he says. "Now we've rewritten our advocacy strategic plan for the next three to five years in the context of sustaining this culture."

Puyear agrees. Where MREA was once at loggerheads with the state teachers union, he says, "we are now cooperating in arenas that I never thought possible."

The legislators have taken notice, Melton says. Those people who used to dismiss their efforts as disorganized? "Now what we hear is, 'Oh my goodness, you've created an unholy alliance.'"

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.