Local school boards are traditionally at the center of this country’s public education system. Elections to these boards have typically featured low voter turnout and the issues have often been parochial in nature. However, recognizing that local districts are critical in implementing new state and national education reform policies, “outsiders with deep pockets” have been pouring money into local school board races in recent years. Michigan State University Assistant Professor Sarah Reckhow and Associate Professor Rebecca Jacobsen, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey R. Henig and doctoral student Jamie Alter Litt recently explored how large donors at the national level are playing a significant role in local school board elections by examining 16,000 contributions to elections in four school districts (Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; Denver, CO; Bridgeport, CT) covering election cycles from 2008 to 2013.
This research examined how “outside money” is given to local school district candidates who are supported by outside donors and the networks among these donors using the data from the four districts. The researchers used a restrictive definition of “outsider,” counting these donors only if they contributed to at least one election from out-of-state. Their study shows that while the number of these outside donors is small, their proportional share of individual contributions can be substantial. While teacher unions continue to be major contributors to school board elections, wealthy individual donors from out-of-state are also substantial contributors. In nearly all instances reviewed for the study, these individual contributions support reform candidates who compete with union-backed candidates. In terms of the networks of donors, the authors identified connections among donors that shape donor behavior. Among the variables examined, a shared affiliation with an education organization was strongly associated with the school board contribution network. Geographic proximity and the network of federal campaign contributions also were statistically significant, but not nearly as significant as an affiliation with education organizations. The authors noted that the donor network they studied was predominantly composed of Democrats, but they found that these contributors were often on opposing sides in the debate on education policy, with many contributing to teacher unions. When not opposed by outside union money, the reformers were largely successful in winning elections.
The findings raise several questions about “new localism” and its effect on American education. The authors argue that national donations can attract more attention and voters into school board elections, which previously had low turnout rates. If the interest of donors is aligned with that of target community members, the involvement of national level donors might be helpful for residents. However, new research suggests that attitudes to education reform among the wealthy are quite different from that of most Americans. Moreover, local politics have tended to be more pragmatic than the national debate. The nationalization of local education politics can lead to candidates taking more ideologically polarized positions, similar to what has occurred on the national stage. This may have important implications for our democratic system and deserves further study.
What it means to you
This study speaks to local leaders like school principals and school board officials that outside donors can have great impact on local politics with outside money. As the author mentioned, the preference of donors and residents can be very different. It is the role of local leaders to accommodate the gap between the requirements for education policies.
Also, as each state has different forms of donation and contribution for elections, state and local policy makers should analyze how the unions and donors are involved in their own context. For example, the authors used New Orleans and Denver as examples of cities which have little union impact, whereas Los Angeles and Bridgeport are cities that have substantial funding from both union and wealthy donors. Since the unique political context of cities might attract the donors or not, it is important to know their own contexts.