Big donors fund some school board elections

(Credit: Wes Peck/Flickr)

Local school board elections increasingly are becoming national political battlegrounds, as millions of dollars in campaign cash pours in from out-of-state donors in the name of education reform.

For example, Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow and a California resident who has funneled some of her $20 billion fortune to school board races not only in Los Angeles, but also in Denver and New Orleans. Or John Arnold, a Texas hedge fund manager with a net worth of $3 billion who also has contributed to school board candidates in those same three cities outside his home state.

In most cases, wealthy outside donors are supporting reform-minded school board candidates who are competing with candidates backed by teacher unions, says Sarah Reckhow, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University and lead author of the paper in the journal Urban Affairs Review.

“Our findings show how local arenas can serve as important battlegrounds in national politics—penetrated by networks of outside donors and organizations who see local elections as critical contests over competing visions of education,” she says.

Donors vs. teacher unions

Researchers analyzed more than 16,000 contributions to school board races in Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 2008 to 2013. The study is one of the first to examine non-local campaign contributions to school board elections.

Historically, school board elections have been low-budget and low-turnout affairs often dominated by teacher unions. But that’s all changing, with outside donors playing a large role in the school board elections in all four of the cities examined.

During the 2011-12 school board elections in Bridgeport, for example, large national donors gave 66 percent of all contributions. And in the 2013 Los Angeles school board elections, large national donors gave 48 percent of all contributions.

Money wields quiet power in state politics

And the trend probably isn’t a passing fad, Reckhow says. In cities where outside donors were not opposed by outside union money—Denver and New Orleans—reform candidates were largely successful in winning elections. This means areas with less union involvement could present a strategic opportunity for outside donors supporting education reform.

But, outside spending is also not restricted to larger urban school districts. National education reform groups have targeted school board elections in smaller cities such as Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Burbank, California.

What are the implications?

Outside money may not be a bad thing if it comes from donors whose values and interests align with those of local residents. And it might even be a good thing if outside donations “offset the dominance of local elites with parochial interests or raise the visibility of elections.”

On the other hand, attitudes toward education policy among the wealthy differ from most Americans. Rich donors tend to be more supportive of market-oriented reforms, such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers, but are less supportive of paying more taxes for early childhood education and federal spending to improve schools.

Moreover, local school politics has sometimes been more pragmatic and open to negotiated compromise than national education debates.

“The nationalization of local education politics might draw local leaders into the more ideologically polarized and unwavering position-taking that has contributed to national-level gridlock,” the study warns.

Other researchers from Michigan State and from Columbia University are coauthors of the study.

Source: Michigan State University