For Big Money Donors, School Boards Are the New ‘Must Buy’ Accessory

The recent school board election in Los Angeles drew close to $17 million in donations, much of it in the form of untraceable “dark money” from a familiar cast of enormously wealthy donors.

In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, co-hosts Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider talk to researcher Rebecca Jacobsen about what—and who—is behind this trend, and how  the influence of huge donors threatens to drown out the voices of people who actually live in these communities. You can hear the entire episode here.

Have You Heard: You’ve been looking into the influence of wealthy donors in school board elections in cities including Los Angeles, Denver, Indianapolis and New Orleans. What most surprised you about what you found?

Jacobsen: I think I'm just constantly astounded at just how much is being spent. You opened with the recent LA election, and the LA Times reported that $144 was spent for every vote cast on the reform side, and then on the union side it was $81 for every vote received by the teacher union backed candidate. And I just think about how much money that is, you know I would have never dreamt that there would be a 15 million dollar school board election. And so I think that's probably one of the things that I find most surprising.

Have You Heard: Tell us a little about the donors who are suddenly so interested in school board elections.

Jacobsen: In our research we've looked at all the different campaign contributions that were given, and exactly who was donating and how much. And we came up with a set of about 96 big national donors, and these are folks that some of us are familiar with, especially when we're in the education reform world. They've often been very influential from a philanthropic perspective. Many of them have created their own education organizations or their education reform groups. These are folks like Reed Hastings of Netflix, who has been really active in sort of reforming education. Laurene Powell Jobs, who is the wife of the late Steve Jobs, who has created her own education reform initiative, Sheryl Sandberg, many of these people are involved in sort of the tech world, and so we see not only connections for regionally, these folks all sort of work and live in the same circles. But then we also see connections that they're involved in the same charter boards or the same education reform organizations and boards. They often share affiliations beyond just the fact that they're now donating to the same organizations. And what's especially striking is that these connections just exploded over a relatively short period of time.

Have You Heard: I’m guessing some people will hear this and think, ‘well we need some kind of influence to counter the power of the teachers union.’ But one of the surprising findings from your research is that unions are not as involved in these local elections as one might expect.

Jacobsen: It has long been assumed that the teacher's union was the most influential interest group in local elections, partially because they're relatively small cost, they're not held at a regular time, which enables these interest groups then to, for very little money and very little mobilization, have a particularly out sized influence. And that certainly has been the case, there's no denying that, however I think that that just sort of universal assumption as truth needs to be challenged by what we're seeing today. Because at least in the cities that we've looked at, union money has been significantly dwarfed by these large outside donors. And increasingly, not just direct donations, but we're seeing dark money donations.

So more and more political action committees are being set up, or independent expenditure committees is what they're sometimes called in the school board world, where there can be sort of unlimited funds and you don't actually even know where they're coming from. Now unions have those as well, but there's just an explosion of these different types of groups and it's really hard to keep track of where the money's even coming from.

Have You Heard: You mention a couple of specific reasons why having wealthy donors try to influence school board races. Start with the part where it turns out that billionaires have different policy priorities than most of us.

Jacobsen: Unfortunately it's not so easy to just call up these very wealthy donors and poll them about their opinions on various policy issues. As one academic stated, their gatekeepers have gatekeepers. So this is a population that is very hard to study, and those that have gotten to it have found that they often have distinctly different views than those of us that are sort of more in the mainstream middle class America. And so the same is true in education. I think that right now we're seeing a huge push for vouchers, a very particular type of education reform, and this is not something that I think we're seeing overwhelming support from local communities. And I think that this is again where we see a mismatch between those that are very wealthy and those that are actually attending the public schools and using them on a regular basis.

Have You Heard: The school board race in Los Angeles got a lot of attention, but as you found, the priorities of local voters often got short shrift versus the agenda of the donors you describe: which basically boiled down to charter schools, charter schools and more charter schools.

Jacobsen: In LA we heard from a few candidates that were very concerned with adult education because of the large immigrant population in LA USD. And the role that adult education plays in supporting student learning. Not just adult learning, but then in turn student learning, and how they could not get that item on the agenda because they simply didn't have the money to compete. There was no conversation to be had around that issue because they just didn't have the ability to publicize it in the same way that those that were getting the large outside donations were able to do. We had one candidate who gave the example of getting a picture from a friend of theirs on a cell phone that showed seven mailers that had been received in one day alone, and this candidate was saying I can barely raise enough money to send out one mailer, let alone seven mailers in one day. So we are concerned that this outside money has the potential to really drown out particular voices and particular issues that might be really important to the local community, but aren't necessarily seen or recognized by this larger national agenda.

This is an edited transcript. You can hear the entire podcast here:


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