Big Money Starts Seeping into School Board Elections

Record amounts of money are being spent to elect school boards. Advocates worry it's the start of a disturbing trend.
by | March 6, 2013

A record amount of money was spent on the Los Angeles school board’s primary elections this week: more than $4 million, according to Education Week, much of which came from outsiders trying to push various reform agendas. It’s a reminder that there is a lot of political money in education. Charter schools and school construction are profitable enterprises. Even if contributors’ intentions are noble, they still have a lot of dough to throw around, as Governing reported in October 2011 in its cover story on billionaires in the classroom.

So, as the Los Angeles election crystallizes the issue, some are starting to wonder if things are going too far, if we’re marching toward an ‘arms race’ in which local elections and school board seats go to the highest bidder. That sounds too much like regular politics, they say. But others counter that this is the way of the world now, and more money means more attention paid to education issues.

Either way, about 120 miles down the road from the City of Angels, one local activist is looking to stem the tide. Chula Vista, Calif., and its Sweetwater Union High School District have seen money poison their public education system, says Maty Adato, a community advocate. In December, four of their six school board members were named in an indictment that documented more than 160 counts of bribery and corruption. The indictment alleges that school board members received various forms of compensation, including campaign donations, in exchange for approving contracts.

So Adato and her allies wanted to put a stop to it. For several years, community advocates had tried to add a bylaw to the school district’s code that would cap the amount of money that a single individual could contribute to a school board candidate’s campaign at $750. It bans any kind of contribution by a business or organization. Up until last month, the proposal had been ignored by the board. But with the indictments looming and Adato threatening to hire an attorney to push it through, the board finally took up the resolution in late February. They haven’t agreed to adopt it yet, but a committee has been formed to review it.

The culture of cronyism alleged in the indictment has turned into a vicious cycle, Adato says. Because private companies were pumping so much money into their chosen candidates, nobody else had enough resources to seriously challenge them. In short, campaign cash was effectively running the Sweetwater district.

“Anyone else running for school board isn't going to have that accessibility, but you really don't even want them to have that because you want things done in the best interest of the kids. But they've lost focus on that,” Adato says. “Maybe I’m just naive and the only person in the world who thinks this, but if you want to be on a school board, you should be there because you value the education of the kids.”

It's a phenomenon that's started to weigh on the minds of policymakers. Last year, the American School Board Journal documented the exploding spending in 2011 school board races in Denver, North Carolina’s Wake County and Virginia’s Fairfax County. More than $2 million was spent during that election season, huge amounts that have already been dwarfed by the spending this year in Los Angeles. One school board member in Wake County recounted how he spent $6,000 in 2007 to secure his seat. Four years later, he brought in more than $42,000 to win it again.

So what’s the explanation for this boon in school campaign cash? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s hyperpartisanship that gives big spenders a greater sense of urgency to make a difference, even in smaller races like a school board. In Wake County, for example, there was a strong Tea Party presence in 2011 and a strong move to counter it. Maybe it’s billionaires with a lot of money to throw around: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has garnered attention for his donations to candidates in the Los Angeles race, and wealthy contributors helped drive up the dollars in Denver. It’s probably a little bit of both.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if the political activity we see at the national level … may be trickling down to specific elections,” Michael Resnick, associate executive director at the National School Boards Association (NSBA), told the Journal, “and elections begin to take on more of the appearance of elections for other offices. That’s the way elections work. People are free to put up their money to support their causes.”

How pervasive this spending spree will become is hard to say. According to a 2010 NSBA survey, 74 percent of their members said they had spent less than $1,000 to win their seat. Less than 3 percent said they had spent more than $25,000. Last year in New Jersey, spending on school elections actually fell to a record low, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, after teachers unions dropped their contributions and election dates were moved.

That might suggest that the kind of spending seen in Los Angeles and a few other big cities are the exception, not the rule. But even if it does continue, maybe that's not such a bad thing, some suggest. "I think it's healthy. School boards are supposed to be policymakers," says Cindy Brown, vice president for education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and a former education adviser under President Jimmy Carter.

The amount of money spent in Los Angeles has spurred a serious conversation about the ideas that the flush candidates are backing, she points out. It's also true that the LA candidates who were bringing in the big money weren't all backing the same agenda. The Michael Bloombergs and Bill Gateses of the world don't necessarily have the same ideas about what public education should look like.

"It's a time of considerable change. There are serious differences of opinion about various kinds of school reform," Brown says. "If we're learning to live with big money in presidiential and congressional campaigns, I guess we can learn to live with it here, particularly for big school boards."

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