BOSTON — Stand for Children, a national education reform group known for its aggressive brand of politics, is poised to spend more than $500,000 backing Boston City Councilor John Connolly in his campaign for mayor.
The effort, which could include television advertising, direct mail, phone calls and door-knocking, will amount to the largest outside expenditure in the race to date.
It gives Connolly a boost in the run-up to the Sept. 24 preliminary election, which will narrow the 12-person field to two. And it marks the second time, in recent weeks, that a national, pro-charter school group with a local chapter has endorsed the councilor.
Democrats for Education Reform came out in support of Connolly last month and has spent about $26,000 to date deploying dozens of paid and volunteer canvassers on his behalf.
The Stand cash marks a significant investment in the race. The leading fundraiser in the campaign, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, had $1.2 million in the bank by mid-August according to the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Connolly had $630,000 on hand as of July 31.
The reform groups are playing in an unsettled field. A Boston Herald/Suffolk University poll released last month showed 40 percent of voters undecided.
But Connolly has established himself as an early favorite. He claimed 12 percent of the vote in the Herald survey, edging state Rep. Martin Walsh for the lead.
And if the education reform movement emerges as an important player in the race, it could serve as a counterweight to the labor groups backing Walsh.
Walsh, who stepped down as head of the Boston Building Trades to run for mayor, has the backing of Teamsters, pipe fitters and firefighters, among others — providing a swarm of volunteers and more than $170,000 in campaign contributions to date.
The AFL-CIO has also launched an independently funded door-knocking campaign on Walsh’s behalf, spending $10,000 to date.
The Connolly campaign, reached Monday afternoon, had not yet learned of the Stand for Children endorsement.
Local education reformers are part of a larger, market-based movement that has swept the country in recent decades — emphasizing charter schools, data-mining and greater accountability for teachers.
The push has the financial backing of philanthropists like Bill Gates and the support of political figures ranging from President Obama to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But reformers have struggled to close the persistent achievement gap separating white and Asian students from blacks and Latinos.
Boston activists insist promising results in the city’s charter schools and a robust network of universities and nonprofit partners offer the chance for a breakthrough. And they see the election of a friendly mayor as critical to that effort.
“We really do believe that, in the very near future,with the right leadership and right focus, that Boston could be the first large urban public school district to not just talk about closing the achievement gap, but actually close the achievement gap,” said Jason Williams, executive director of Stand for Children’s Massachusetts chapter.
Connolly has made education the signature issue of his City Council career.
In 2011, he made headlines when he uncovered expired frozen food in school cafeterias. And he was the lone vote on the City Council against the most recent teacher contract, objecting to its failure to extend the school day.
He has also embraced the central components of education reform agenda. He wants the state to lift a cap on charter schools. He’s advocated for more early education. And he has called for a decentralization of the school system, with authority shifting from the district headquarters on Court Street to school principals.
Reformers argue that a principal with the power to hire and fire teachers and dictate the school schedule is the most important change agent in public education.
Stand for Children’s endorsement process took several weeks. Sam Holdren, a spokesman for the group, said mayoral candidates filled out questionnaires, which staff reviewed with the names redacted.
The organization then whittled the field to four — conducting interviews with Connolly, Conley, longtime community activist Bill Walczak and former Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative executive director John Barros.
Williams, Stand’s executive director, said Connolly’s record of advocacy set him apart. But the organization also weighed polling and the candidates’ financial resources.
Founded in 1996 by Jonah Edelman, the son of a well-known civil rights activist, the Oregon-based Stand has chapters in 11 states.
In Indiana, the group helped pass a bill ensuring performance-based evaluations for teachers. And in Washington, it worked to elect allies to the state legislature and to school boards in Issaquah and Tacoma.
Power politics is a calling card. In 2011, Edelman told a gathering at the Aspen Ideas Festival that Illinois teachers unions were concerned about legislation the group championed that year because Stand could “jam this proposal down their throats.”
Edelman later apologized for the comment. But the measure had already passed.
The group’s 10-year-old Massachusetts chapter made a splash last year when it forced teachers unions to give up certain seniority rights after threatening to put the issue on the ballot. The group spent $400,000 on that campaign.
Stand still has to cobble together the resources to fund its campaign on Connolly’s behalf. But Richard Burnes, a semi-retired venture capitalist who has helped underwrite the local reform movement, said he expects local funders to rally around the effort.
Stand has also relied, in the past, on funding from its parent organization.
The outside money is sure to rankle some of Connolly’s opponents. City Councilor Rob Consalvo has already made hay of Democrats for Education Reform’s spending on Connolly’s behalf.
And the effort is expected to draw a counterpunch from the Boston Teachers Union. Richard Stutman, president of the union, told WBUR Monday that the union may make an endorsement and wage an on-the-ground campaign in the run-up to the preliminary election.
The union, he said, will certainly play in the final election in October.