Worse than Betsy DeVos: The disturbing story of 2020 school board elections

Worse than Betsy DeVos: The disturbing story of 2020 school board elections
Betsy DeVos // Credit: Gage Skidmore

When a Biden victory in the 2020 presidential election became certain, supporters of public education gleefully took to social media to say good riddance to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos came into office with an agenda to further the privatization of public education by expanding charter schools and by encouraging families to opt out of public schools by any means possible. During her tenure, she effectively used her bully pulpit to cheer on efforts by Republican state lawmakers to expand various forms of voucher programs that give parents public money to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. She awarded many of the nation's largest charter school chains with millions in federal funding, and she used the pandemic as an opportunity to redirect emergency funds for public schools to private schools and internet-based instruction—all the while refusing to even visit struggling public schools.

Biden is expected to oppose voucher programs and limit the growth of the charter school industry. But despite the promising prospect of a transition from DeVos to a Biden administration, progressive public school advocates can't afford to overlook a threat to democratically governed schools that preceded DeVos and will continue when she is long gone.

In midsized metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and Stockton, California, parents, teachers, and public school advocates warn of huge sums of money coming from outside their communities to influence local politics and bankroll school board candidates who support school privatization. In phone conversations, emails, and texts, they point to a national agenda, backed by deep-pocketed organizations and individuals who intend to disrupt local school governance in order to impose forms of schools that operate like private contractors rather than public agencies—an agenda not dissimilar from that of DeVos.

In the 2020 school board election in Indianapolis, local teachers and grassroots groups the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the IPS Community Coalition backed four candidates against a slate of opponents whom locals accuse of representing outside interests. At stake, according to WFYI, was "an ideological tilt" over whether the district would continue to "collaborate with outside groups and charter organizations" or "return to more traditional methods of improving struggling schools."

Both sides raise the banner of "improving struggling schools," but locals say what's really at stake is whether voters retain democratic control of their public schools or see them turned over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders.

Similarly, in Stockton, the clash between opposing slates of candidates in the 2020 school board election included controversies over charter school expansion and the influence of outside money in the district.

The controversy broke into public view in July 2020 when 209 Times reported that "[p]aid operatives" connected to Stockton's outgoing mayor Michael Tubbs and three school board members were engaged in "a coordinated campaign of undue influence from outside of the city whose aim is… charter school expansion" into the district.

In both elections, candidates backed by outside organizations and individuals massively outspent candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates.

In Indianapolis, WFYI reported that political action committees supporting the candidates aligned with charter school interests had contributed more than $200,000 into the election by October 9, while the "[f]our candidates backed by the IPS Community Coalition… [had by then] raised less than $20,000 in total."

In Stockton, 209 Politics reported independent expenditure committees supporting candidates favoring charter school expansion outspent their opponents 25 to 1.

While the language used by these outside organizations and their benefactors is different from the rhetoric DeVos wields—substituting a message of rescuing struggling schools for DeVos's calls for libertarian autonomy—the result is much the same: local citizens see democratic governance of their schools being swept aside as private actors get more control to do what they want.

The fear, as Indianapolis teacher and community activist Dountonia Batts described to me, is that the influence of outsider money will "further remove public voices from public education."

Who Are the 'Outsiders'?

"Indianapolis school board races have become no longer a local phenomenon, but an event caught up in a national agenda to privatize and corporatize public education," says John Loflin, a longtime Indianapolis public school advocate with Parent Power, the Indianapolis affiliate of Parents Across America. "What started out as a push for a few local charters has grown [over the last decade]. Now, Indianapolis is home of America's second-most privatized public school system," he observes, citing an analysis by retired teacher and blogger Thomas Ultican, who has meticulously tracked the influence of national groups disrupting local school politics.

Ultican explains the "major role" played by local organization the Mind Trust and the substantial financial backing the Mind Trust receives from philanthropists and foundations outside of the district, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame; Arnold Ventures, the private foundation of former hedge fund manager and Enron trader John Arnold; and the City Fund, a nationwide organization providing financial support for city-level charter school expansions.

Another outside big spender in Indianapolis is Stand for Children, an Oregon-based education 501(c)(4) recruited by the Mind Trust in 2011 to advocate for "education reforms" that eventually entailed the creation of "autonomous" schools, including charter schools.

In a 2014 op-ed for the Indianapolis Recorder, local columnist Amos Brown posed the possibility that the outsized spending by Stand for Children meant it was "buying" the school board. Brown criticized the group for not divulging its total spending in the district, which experts estimated at around $500,000, Brown stated.

By 2016, six of the seven Indianapolis school board members had "been elected with the support of Stand for Children… which has poured undisclosed amounts of money into the IPS elections since 2012," reported IndyStar.

In the 2020 election, Ultican reports, outside money flowed to four candidates: four-term incumbent Diane Arnold; Will Pritchard, who had barely missed out on being appointed to an open seat in 2015; one-term incumbent Venita Moore; and challenger Kenneth Allen, who was taking on incumbent Elizabeth Gore, the only candidate to win in 2016 without the support of Stand for Children.

In 2020, campaign contributions also came from a new PAC aligned with Stand for Children, RISE Indy, whose major contributors, WFYI reports, include $200,000 from Alice Walton, a daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and $100,000 from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

RISE Indy's leadership also has personal ties to the charter industry. Its founder has a sister who started a charter school and another sister who worked for the Mind Trust before becoming a partner at the City Fund, Chalkbeat reports.

As Ultican reports, another pro-charter actor wielding outside money to influence Indianapolis schools is Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, an organization founded by former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose administration brought the first charters to the district. The organization has drawn donations from charter school promoters, including $200,000 from Netflix founder Reed Hastings.

Four candidates endorsed by the Indiana teachers' union (Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, or I-PACE, the political action division of the Indiana State Teachers Association, or ISTA) and the IPS Community Coalition were the incumbent Gore and first-time candidates Christina Smith, Daqavise Winston, and Brandon Randall.

According to Ultican's calculations of the money that has been disclosed so far, total campaign contributions from pro-charter PACs dwarfed contributions from the teachers' union by more than 11 to 1.

Stockton has drawn a similar cast of outsiders to its local school politics scene, according to 209 Politics, with large donations coming from Bloomberg and the Campaign for Great Public Schools, the "political arm" of the City Fund.

The candidates who benefited from the largesse were first-time candidates Viola Shackelford and Valentino Silva as well as incumbent Lange Luntao. Opposing these candidates were candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates: Alicia Rico, first-time candidate Ray Zulueta, and incumbent Cecilia Mendez.

"There's a lot of division in our community caused by big money coming into the district," Zulueta told me in a phone call. "Mayor Tubbs and some current members of the school board don't want to admit this… or communicate what's really going on."

Although Zulueta did not mention names, the current board members whom he might have been referring to were AngelAnn Flores, who "is a current employee of Aspire Charter Schools," according to a July report by 209 Times; Candelaria Vargas, who 209 Times reports is married to Max Vargas, senior policy adviser to Mayor Tubbs; and Luntao, Zulueta's opponent, who has been under a conflict of interest investigation for approving a board resolution to add charter schools to the district despite having been an employee of Aspire, one of the charter organizations considered for the district, as the Stockton Record reports.

Zulueta said that Stockton's current political leadership is generally out of touch with the character and needs of the community. "We're an agricultural and small-business and trades community," he explained. "This current group doesn't understand this and looks to ideas from big cities… like corporatization with charter schools."

A Big Business-Right-Wing Agenda

The presence of the City Fund in these elections is particularly noteworthy.

Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum describes the City Fund as a "major player" in using its considerable financial clout to promote the growth of "charter and charter-like schools" in local politics and school board races. The organization has targeted more than a dozen cities, including Indianapolis and Stockton, with large sums of money they pass through "city-based organizations and charter networks" that can add to the illusion that their support is local rather than national.

Barnum has previously reported how the success of the Mind Trust's efforts in Indianapolis inspired the creation of an advocacy network in 2017 called Education Cities and then, in 2018, the formation of the City Fund, with a $200 million grant from Arnold and Hastings.

The idea behind all these organizations, Barnum explained, was to form a network of groups across the country intent on advancing an idea known as a "portfolio model" for schools.

The portfolio approach uses a Wall Street metaphor as a philosophy for governing schools. The basic idea is that school boards should treat their schools as if they were a stock portfolio, and board members should be agnostic about who runs individual schools. Private contractors, such as charter schools, are brought into the district in order to diversify the investments in the portfolio, and the role of the elected board becomes more about tracking the performance of each school, based on test scores, and selling off (closing) schools at the bottom or turning them over to other private contractors.

Another organization that was nurtured by this well-funded free-market ideology is School Board Partners, which announced its debut in 2018, Barnum reported.

According to Barnum's reporting, School Board Partners seeks to "form a network of [current] school board members in at least 10 cities" who have an interest in "coaching and consulting services" related to adopting the portfolio model. Current Stockton board members Luntao, Flores, and Vargas appear to be partners in the organization, according to 209 Times.

The "national scope" of these organizations "has gone mostly unexamined," Barnum writes, "even as their influence is arguably far more likely to affect schools in the average American city than a Betsy DeVos-inspired voucher program."

In addition to emphasizing charter schools, the portfolio model also often calls for creating so-called innovation schools—charter-like schools that are led by private boards and therefore are much less accountable to locally elected public officials. The idea originated in the policy workshop of the American Legislative Executive Council, a collaborative of big businesses and right-wing organizations to influence state legislation through the creation of model bills.

The concept, says Loflin, "is another way to wrestle away the voters' direct democratic control of their public schools and turn them over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders."

Batts calls innovation schools "charter schools without the charter," i.e., the contract document between a charter school and its authorizer.

But does the portfolio approach actually benefit the communities where they operate?

The City Fund's website cites research that has shown some positive results from charter schools in urban communities, but the studies do not appear to be about results that can be attributed to the work of the City Fund or adopting the portfolio model.

In a 2016 policy brief on the portfolio schools model issued by the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Kevin Welner write that there is "a very limited body of generally accepted research" on the benefits of the model, and they note that "the private management of a community's schools eliminates democratic accountability."

Looking solely at innovation schools, a 2020 analysis Terrenda White and Anna Noble did for the National Education Policy Center cautions, "Districts should temper their calls for 'unrestricted autonomy' of public schools. This suggestion to exercise caution is due not only to evidence of the varied and short-lived nature of academic gains among autonomous schools, but also because of unequal geographies of opportunity within districts."

White and Noble warn that further reliance on autonomous schools like charters and innovation schools risks "[d]istrict responsibility for equity" being "displaced, or too broadly diffused across schools." And rather than importing ideas from distant think tanks and advocacy groups, the authors' recommendation is for "[s]chool improvement strategies" to be "tied to regional and community-based approaches."

'Selected Not Elected'

In their 2019 book Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics, Jeffrey Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Sarah Reckhow examine the injection of external funding into local elections in five urban districts, including Indianapolis. They find a dramatic escalation in money spent in school board races, especially by outside donors who "hope that local education reform efforts" they backed in some communities "[become] national models for other school districts to follow."

The authors contend that financial support from teachers' unions can sometimes counterbalance the influence of outside donors and their associated organizations. However, it seems clear from the 2020 school board election campaigns in Indianapolis and Stockton that there are many communities in which unions simply can't match the financial clout of outside money.

The authors' research finds very few examples of nationally prominent progressive political groups and individuals who have consistently allied with local teachers and public school activists to oppose the influence of outside money.

A notable exception, the authors find, is the Working Families Party, which has organized for teacher-backed candidates in school board races in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Since the book's publication, the Working Families Party has emerged as an ally to public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, too.

While Henig, Jacobsen, and Reckhow find the consequences of outside money in local school politics can be "neither wholly good nor wholly bad," one conclusion they reach is that the media attention that increased outsider money brings to school board elections often leads to "a narrower policy agenda focused on nationalized issues, sometimes at the expense of more localized issues that may be of more immediate concern of the local citizenry."

Narrowing the conversation to ideological issues backed by outsiders—whether it's DeVos's libertarian belief in "school choice" or the emphasis on free-market ideals favored by advocates for the portfolio model—risks crowding out more research-based approaches to school improvement, such as adequate funding, high-quality teaching, and equity of learning opportunity regardless of students' race, income, or language. This certainly was the case in the 2020 school board elections in Indianapolis and Stockton. Yet, while these races had much in common, they had starkly different results.

In Indianapolis, "Candidates favoring charters and school choice claimed a sweeping victory," Chalkbeat reported, "winning all four seats."

In Stockton, teacher- and community-backed candidates Mendez, Rico, and Zulueta all won, the Record reported.

The results in Indianapolis prompted John Loflin to reflect, "U.S. citizens want the right to control public education by electing school boards. People went to jail and others died for our right to vote for those who represent them. Allowing boards of charters and innovation schools to be selected, not elected, is nothing more than a power grab to transfer control of public education and its funding to private interests."

In Stockton, Ray Zulueta's comments are understandably more upbeat. "There is no higher civic duty than community coming together to make decisions on their locality as one," he said. "We have resoundingly rejected the influence of outside interests in Stockton, and [we] look forward to returning the decision-making power back to our community members."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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