Is Big Money the New Normal in School Board Elections?

Mar 7, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Beth Hawkins

Five years ago, a survey of elected school board members found a whopping 87 percent spent $5,000 or less on their most recent campaign. Even in larger districts—those with at least 15,000 students—only 10 percent spent $25,000 or more, the National School Boards Association reported. What an innocent era, 2010. Welcome to the new normal, where six- and even seven-figure school board campaigns have become commonplace. There were million-dollar-plus races last fall not just in big cities, but in the kinds of bedroom communities where it’s usually only the PTA parents who can name their board members. Indeed in some places it’s cheaper to run for Congress than to win a board seat, with its influence over everything from billion-dollar budgets to school attendance boundaries. No more can a candidate count on financing a run by dialing their way down their Christmas card list. [aesop_quote type="block" background="#282828" text="#ffffff" align="right" size="2" quote="Indeed in some places it’s cheaper to run for Congress than to win a board seat, with its influence over everything from billion-dollar budgets to school attendance boundaries." parallax="on" direction="left"] And it’s happening at a time when rising frustration with schools’ wildly disparate efforts to serve the most challenged students has made school boards some of the most divisive political bodies around. The size of the war chests being amassed is a direct reflection of the high stakes.

Look to the West

So what does it mean when money becomes a fixture on a once-sleepy local political landscape? Education policymakers are watching anxiously, trying to answer the question. Consider Los Angeles and Denver. Both are sprawling urban districts that have struggled to serve concentrations of impoverished students of color. Both have now experienced multiple election cycles in which unprecedented political spending has played a role. But the difference in the outcomes is instructional. In Denver in November a third consecutive well-financed race went beyond solidifying a majority. A seven-member board was elected that is expected to continue to push for refinement of some of the most effective school improvement strategies in the country. Meanwhile spending last spring on three hotly contested board seats in Los Angeles Unified School District topped $6 million. Because of legal campaign spending loopholes the total will likely never be known, but it is almost certainly the most expensive board election in history. It’s the second-largest school system in the nation, serving 640,000 students. And it resulted in the election of a split board that must decide a series of potentially tectonic shifts in direction. Among them the design of teacher evaluations and whether and how quickly to expand the capacity of charter schools in coming years. [aesop_parallax img="" parallaxbg="on" parallaxspeed="1" caption="Charter school founder Ref Rodriguez was elected to the Los Angeles school board in 2015." captionposition="bottom-left" lightbox="on"] In Denver, the infrastructure that accompanied the money—groups to recruit and support candidates—have used their newfound organizing capacity to create an education “ecosystem” that has driven community engagement. Groups seeking to influence outcomes in vast Los Angeles, by contrast, have been slower to begin building networks.

Whither the Electorate?

It is, in short, the exact opposite of the imagined ideal of a hundred years ago when the modern school board—protecting the classroom from partisan politics—was designed. Decision-making should be as local as possible, the thinking held. Races should be nonpartisan and take place in odd-numbered years when they are not competing with a presidential contest or other high-profile race. In practice, however, off-year elections have meant rock-bottom turnout. In 2012, for example, total turnout for the 240 board races on ballots in Arkansas was less than 1 percent. Last year’s $6 million Los Angeles race drew less than 8 percent of registered voters. “Some amount of this is not by accident,” says Chris Korsmo, CEO of Washington state’s League of Education Voters. “It’s traditionally more suppressed in communities that are more affected in terms of bad outcomes in education, in housing, in healthcare.” Not only is education as controversial within the body politic as anything else, the insulation long ago gave way to insularity. The two-thirds of registered voters who don’t have school-aged children may get the relationship between a levy referendum and their home’s value, but they often don’t track district happenings. [aesop_quote type="block" background="#282828" text="#ffffff" align="right" size="2" quote="I’m not sure it was actually the money that did it. It was calls, not knocking on doors. And it’s not calling and leaving a message. It’s calling until you get someone to talk to." cite="Ref Rodriguez" parallax="off" direction="left"] In the absence of an issue that galvanizes an outside special interest group, such as a religious group seeking to control curriculum or real estate interests hoping bonds will be issued, that has historically left teachers unions with tremendous influence over elections. Races may be nonpartisan, but voters often look to their party’s endorsements for guidance on down-ticket races and local Democratic parties often defer to unions’ picks. The unions provide phone banks and canvassers. And they get their members to the polls. In a 2006 survey of nine southern California communities, Stanford University Political Science Professor Terry Moe found that the “turnout gap” between registered voters and unionized teachers was 36 percent, including higher-turnout referenda. “It’s not a democracy, it’s a club,” says Korsmo. “And by design and rule, clubs have memberships.” Over the last decade the collection of federally mandated data revealed shocking inequity, drawing attention to the often dysfunctional dynamics of elected school boards, who tended to thwart changes to teachers contracts. Despite widespread concern about the effectiveness of elected school boards, there’s little evidence alternative governance models are reliably better. Satisfaction with mayoral control, for example, tends to depend on how one feels about the mayor in question. And even larger sums are spent influencing municipal races. So-called SuperPACs—groups that spend, independently of campaigns, to influence elections—alone spent more than $10 million on Philadelphia’s 2015 mayoral contest. Philly’s mayor appoints the school board. The American Federation of Teachers contributed at least $1 million to a union-backed mayoral candidate. Frustrated with “the multiple sins of the LAUSD”—the Los Angeles Unified School District— in 1999 then-Mayor Richard Riordan called on the business community to help recruit and finance campaigns against four union-backed incumbents. Riordan’s successor, Antonio Villaraigosa, backed board candidates who favored bedrock reforms such as teacher evaluations and charter schools. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist Eli Broad and other deep-pocketed education advocates made eye-popping campaign donations and independent expenditures, spending by the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, ratcheted up in response. “They’ve sort of fought to a draw over the last 20 years,” said Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University Los Angeles. “Money isn’t always as useful as you think.” In 2013, for example, a very well funded candidate lost to someone backed by the teachers union, which dominates in organizing capacity and which does not wind down between elections. By contrast, the groups and individuals seeking to counter the union’s influence create a new infrastructure with a new name each cycle. “We tend to have a very old-fashioned approach to these campaigns,” says Korsmo. “They come in with a plan that’s worked at some point in their careers and it almost never includes introducing a candidate who is unknown to a community of color.” Though the total extent will never be known, it’s quite possible that there were $4 million in outside expenditures—spending that’s independent of campaigns--in 2015’s hottest L.A. contest, between charter school founder Ref Rodriguez and an anti-charter, union-backed incumbent. Rodriguez won with 54 percent. “I’m not sure it was actually the money that did it,” says Rodriguez. “It was calls, not knocking on doors. And it’s not calling and leaving a message. It’s calling until you get someone to talk to.” The campaign’s post-election analysis suggested that turnout in Rodriguez’ vast district was 12 percent, much of it new Latino voters energized by personal conversations about their kids and their schools. By contrast, residents of the district’s wealthy Los Feliz and Silver Lake neighborhoods, where school choice is not as pressing an issue, supported the incumbent. “I was told early on, ‘Look, don’t pay attention to the Latinos, they don’t turn out to vote,” says Rodriguez. “Pay attention to the high-propensity voters.” In an effort to increase turnout in all municipal races, Los Angeles residents recently voted to move local elections to even-numbered years. Board members elected this year will serve terms ending in 2020, when the change goes into effect. [aesop_parallax img="" parallaxbg="on" parallaxspeed="1" caption="Advocates from A+ Denver rally at Denver Public Schools." captionposition="bottom-left" lightbox="on" floater="on" floatermedia="Denver’s success is because the “three Ps”—politics, policy and practice—have moved at the same pace, says A+ Denver’s CEO." floaterposition="left" floaterdirection="up"] Contrast all of this to Denver, where a dynamic has emerged that other communities might find instructive. In 2009 when the first big-money election took place, the district was several years into some reforms that were showing positive results. Consequently, debate was not as polarized as it has been elsewhere. Van Schoales is CEO of the nonprofit “action tank” A+ Denver and a former member of the advisory board of Democrats for Education Reform. In his opinion, part of Denver’s success is because the “three Ps”—politics, policy and practice—have moved at the same pace. As a consequence, changes such as teacher evaluations have not come faster than the system’s ability to implement them well enough to quell fears, he explained. And that in turn has allowed for more nuanced conversations among board members and the community about policy. By way of example, Schoales notes that all Denver board members now favor the autonomous schools strategy that has borne enough fruit to forestall L.A.-style acrimony. Since members don’t have to fight ugly foundational fights, they can concentrate on pushing district leaders. Money, he says, has not been so unhealthy for Denver politics. The hefty campaign expenditures have increased the quality of the pool of candidates overall. “In general, the candidates have become more sophisticated,” said Schoales. “In large part because the campaigns have become more sophisticated. They don’t want to waste a couple hundred thousand dollars.” Because it remains active between elections, the political infrastructure is driving citizen engagement. For example, the Colorado chapter of the national organization Stand for Children has a network of parent leaders in communities that usually aren’t heard from in electoral politics. “Our parents drive our endorsing process,” says Executive Director Jeani Frickey Saito. “We don’t take any action until our parents have weighed in.” Stand for Children has about two dozen engaged parent leaders who Frickey Saito says are remarkably well organized. A get-out-the-vote campaign last fall helped incumbent Happy Haynes bounce back from a six-figure, late-in-the-game challenge. Haynes was losing until election day, when 26,000 votes came in. (Colorado residents vote by mail.) “The caliber of the Denver School Board I’d put up against any other governing entity,” says Frickey Saito. “We have a former lieutenant governor on the board, the debates are better, they’re more sophisticated. They’re not at the food-throwing stage.” The level of decorum has in turn driven greater civic engagement. Turnout in Denver’s board race last year was an astounding 44 percent. Shortly after the Los Angeles election Rodriguez was approached at a coffee shop by a student from Loyola-Marymount University whose class had been assigned to conduct an informal exit poll in his race. The students told him that over and over they heard that people went to the polls because they were told their vote mattered. Keeping that engagement going is important for the next election, he says. But so is capitalizing on the momentum to keep parents talking. “My job on the school board is to keep people active, and that includes active in their schools and asking for change,” says Rodriguez. “It’s been slow. But we talk about going slow to go fast. We’re going to invest the time to make people feel heard so their voices can continue to drive the process.”  
First photo by Cheryl Guerrero, courtesy of KPCC. Second photo courtesy of Ref Rodriguez. Third photo courtesy of A+ Denver.

Beth Hawkins

Beth Hawkins is a writer at The 74, and formerly was a writer-in-residence at Education Post. Previously she wrote for Learning Curve, a blog about education for MinnPost, where she also covered a variety of other public policy topics. She loves writing for an audience that’s hungry for context and analysis and willing to indulge her many curiosities. Hawkins is the recipient of numerous national and regional awards, including several first-place Society of Professional Journalists Page One Awards for investigative reporting and feature writing. Her work has appeared in More, Mother Jones, Minnesota Monthly and many other publications. You can also find her blogging at

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