Stand for Children, a group that arrived in Massachusetts less than a decade ago, is on the brink of pulling off a major coup: using hardball tactics to compel the state’s largest teachers union to give up some of its cherished seniority rights.
The group’s success in confronting the formidable power of teachers unions has made it a national and polarizing player in the battle over education policy.
Founded in 1996 by Jonah Edelman, the son of a legendary civil rights leader and a top aide to Robert F. Kennedy, Stand for Children has used a potent combination of money and political organizing to succeed where other groups have faltered.
Critics say the group represents business interests and seeks to loosen critical workplace rules that protect teachers from gratuitous retribution. Admirers say the group has successfully battled entrenched unions that hold back struggling schools.
The group’s funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Foundation, which is controlled by the family that founded Walmart; and the Bezos Family Foundation, started by the founder of Amazon.com.
Based in Oregon, Stand for Children has expanded its reach into 10 states, pushing initiatives that make it easier to dismiss tenured teachers who are deemed ineffective and that tie teacher tenure and layoff decisions to performance.
In the process, Edelman has developed a reputation as a tough and savvy operator. Last year, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he boasted that Illinois teachers unions feared one of his education bills because his group had the ability to “jam this proposal down their throats.’’ He later apologized for the remark.
Few, however, doubt the group’s effectiveness. In Washington, Stand for Children says that it helped elect seven allies to the Legislature, in part by contacting more than 25,000 voters. In Colorado, it says it helped pass a law that requires annual evaluations of teachers and principals and helped defeat a proposed moratorium on new charter schools.
In Massachusetts, where Stand for Children opened a branch in 2003, the group initially focused on suburban communities, helping to pass Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. The group also lobbied for a 2010 law that lifted the cap on charter schools in urban districts.
It then turned its attention to urban districts, dispatching organizers to recruit members and train activists in Worcester, Springfield, and Boston.
Last year, convinced that such a measure would never pass the Democrat-controlled Legislature, the group decided to push a sweeping ballot initiative to prioritize teacher evaluations over seniority in making school staffing decisions.
With the help of paid signature gatherers, it quickly collected the more than 11,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the November ballot.
The decision to bypass the Legislature and go directly to the voters unnerved some of the group’s allies, struck fear into union leaders, and led delegates at the Democratic state convention to formally denounce the initiative last Saturday.
But the threat of a ballot measure, which polls indicated was likely to pass, succeeded in prompting the Massachusetts Teachers Association to strike a deal in exchange for the group dropping the ballot initiative.
“They clearly are well organized and have the resources to get their point across, both within the Legislature and across the state,’’ said Representative Martha Walz, a former chairwoman of the Education Committee. She worked with Stand for Children on the 2010 law, but criticized the ballot initiative as “premature.’’
“Stand for Children wants you to think it’s grass-roots, but it isn’t,’’ said Marilyn Segal, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, which opposed the ballot initiative. “They clearly are antiunion, and really willing to be hurtful to our schools with their approach.’’
Jason Williams, executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts, strongly disagreed. A former union teacher, he said his group is simply fed up with the forces that defend the status quo in urban schools.
“This is about the fact that kids are failing,’’ he said, “and we’ve got to make some fundamental changes to ensure our kids are successful.’’