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Commentary: When big money becomes the new normal — contrasting LA’s and Denver’s school board races

Guest Contributor | February 27, 2017



By Beth Hawkins

At the start of the decade, 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.

According to campaign finance disclosures through Feb. 18, almost $5 million had been spent on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board primary scheduled for March 7. That’s just $1 million less than was spent on Los Angeles board campaigns in 2015, the nation’s most expensive school board race ever.

Nearly $3.75 million of the cash has flooded into the heated race to represent the wealthy Westside District 4, home to board President Steve Zimmer. Much of the spending in support of Zimmer’s re-election comes from labor, little surprise in a district where the teachers union is fighting pitched battles over everything from teacher evaluations to charter school organizing.

His chief opponents, Nick Melvoin and Allison Holdorff Polhill, have enjoyed the backing of a number of groups and philanthropists supportive of expansion of the charter school sector and school accountability. 

Even for the second-largest school district in the country, the sums are eye-popping. So much so that current school board members recently voted to explore joining a municipal campaign finance reform effort under consideration.

Welcome to the new normal, where six- and even seven-figure school board campaigns have become commonplace. There were million-dollar-plus races two years ago 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. 

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.

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 2015 in Denver 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. Six candidates raised $495,500 in that election, slightly more than they spent. 

Los Angeles is the second-largest school system in the nation, serving 665,000 students. And it resulted in the election of a split board that was under the gun to decide a series of potentially tectonic shifts in direction. Among them the hiring of a new superintendent and whether and how quickly to expand the capacity of charter schools in coming years.

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.

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. 2015’s $6 million Los Angeles race drew less than 8 percent of registered voters.

“Some amount of this is not by accident,” said 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. 

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.

“Teachers turn out at much higher rates than other citizens do, they act on their occupational self-interest, and exactly the same is true of the other district employees,” Moe reported. “This makes them key political allies and essentially allows the teacher unions to double their voting strength.”

“It’s not a democracy, it’s a club,” says Korsmo. “And by design and rule, clubs have memberships.”

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 last 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, who won the 2015 election.

Frustrated with “the multiple sins of the LAUSD,” then-Mayor Richard Riordan in 1999 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, executive 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’s 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 in 2015 will serve terms ending in 2020, when the change goes into effect.

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 during the last election 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 last board race was an astounding 44 percent. Since the contest, the district has been lauded both for its steady, solid academic gains and its nation-leading collaboration between mainline and charter schools.

Nonpartisan and lacking a primary, this year’s Denver school board race is expected to stay sleepy until at least late spring. Incumbents have yet to announce their electoral plans and the hottest issue to surface so far involves the district’s performance on its plan for addressing its lowest-performing schools.

By contrast, if past elections are any indication, Los Angeles could elect another divided board. Nor is it clear that a new public campaign finance system would stem the influx of big money. Or for that matter where the money to back aggressive local campaigns would come from. (Los Angeles already makes some tax dollars available to campaigns that agree to abide by certain limits.)

Finally, and potentially more crucial, left unaddressed is the question of convincing city residents to engage with LAUSD and its board on the kind of ongoing basis that’s required to drive grassroots change.

Shortly after the 2015 Los Angeles election, board member Rodriguez was approached at a coffee shop by a group of students 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.

“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.”


Beth Hawkins is the editorial director at Education Post, where she writes about issues that affect public education nationwide.  

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