Expert Commentary

Outside money targets school board elections

Wealthy individuals and national advocacy groups are using their cash to get people who support education reforms elected to local school boards.

Students in classroom

The issue: Across the country, media organizations have spotlighted an influx of outside money targeting school board elections, which, historically, have been low-budget affairs. Wealthy individuals and national advocacy groups are using their cash to influence politics in various states by helping people who support their causes get elected to local school boards and state-level boards of education.

In some cases, the level of outside involvement is unprecedented.  The Los Angeles Board of Education races in 2017 were the most expensive in U.S. history, with organizations promoting charter schools contributing nearly $10 million to help put two charter-friendly candidates in office. Also in 2017, outside groups spent more than $1.5 million on three school board races in the Denver-metro area. Two years earlier, The Washington Post reported that a California businessman and two Arkansas billionaires were “dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Louisiana in an effort to help keep its majority friendly to corporate school reform.”

A study worth reading: “‘Outsiders with Deep Pockets’: The Nationalization of Local School Board Elections,” published in Urban Affairs Review, 2017.

Study summary: A team of researchers from Michigan State and Columbia universities examined the involvement of outside donors in local school politics. The researchers collected data on campaign contributions made during three election cycles in three large school districts – Los Angeles, Denver and Bridgeport, Connecticut – as well as contributions made during two election cycles in New Orleans. In total, they analyzed more than 16,000 contributions to candidates and organizations between 2008 and 2013.

These four urban school districts are not meant to be a nationally representative sample. They were chosen to “provide a window into the processes that are activated when the local arena comes to be regarded as having national significance.” Donors are considered “outside” if they contributed to at least one election outside their own state.

Some key findings:

  • While only a small number of outside donors contributed to local school board elections, their share was large. “In the 2012 and 2013 election cycles, large national individual donors gave a total of $2.7 million to candidates and committees in our four cities, comprising 44 percent of all funds contributed by individuals in these elections.”
  • Wealthy, out-of-state donors generally backed candidates who supported “reform” efforts such as expanding charter schools and paying teachers based on student performance. Often, individuals donors made donations through national or state-level organizations, which endorsed candidates reflecting their views. Such candidates tended to compete with those supported by teachers unions.
  • “Our research shows how national trends in campaigns, including the heightened political involvement of super-wealthy individuals and the rise of new organizations raising unlimited campaign funds, can significantly affect local politics. Unlike the more traditional occurrence of local elites mobilizing to influence their own local elections, we show the emergence of national networks of affluent individuals mobilizing to support common causes across multiple localities.”

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