School board races attract big outside money

The money keeps flowing into local school board races and education ballot initiatives from outsiders with deep pockets. (Examples are here and here and here and here.)

 
Most school board races are inexpensive; according to the National Schools Boards Association, a 2010 survey showed that nearly 90 percent of elected members said that they spent less than $5,000 on their most recent campaign.
 
Now take a look at the race in New Orleans for the right to represent District 3 of the Orleans Parish school board, which operates fewer than 20 schools in the city (where most of the schools are charter schools run by the Recovery School District). Sarah Newell Usdin, one of the city’s most prominent charter school backers, is taking a lot of money from people like Joel Klein to run against Karran Harper Royal, a public school parent in New Orleans who has long been an advocate for special education students, and incumbent Brett Bonin, a lawyer.
 
Usdin has taken in more than $110,000 in donations from people who include Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools (who doesn’t live in New Orleans); Netflix founder Reed Hastings (who doesn’t live in New Orleans) and author Walter Isaacson (who was born in New Orleans), according to the Times-Picayune newspaper. Donation disclosure records show that from Jan. 1 to Sept. 27, Bonin raised $24,990; Royal, $5,569; and Usdin, $110,468.
 
Usdin and her backers support the spread of charter schools.  Bonin supports charters too, but wants more of them to be community-based. Royal is highly critical of charters, saying that the idea that the charter-dominant Recovery School District has been successful is wrong. The Recovery School District in New Orleans is held up by school reformers as a model for how urban school districts can be reformed according to this line of thinking: The Recovery District is mostly charter, and so much improvement has been made, the charter model makes sense for other districts too. But a report that came out earlier this year shows that the charters in that district actually are faring poorly, more so than the charters in the smaller Orleans Parish School District. 

 The Times-Picayune quoted both Harper Royal, who has no party affiliation, and Bonin, a Republican, as saying that the independence of the board would be compromised if Usdin, a Democrat, is elected with the help of so much outside money. The newspaper quoted an e-mail from Usdin that said  “the ‘transformational change’ in New Orleans ‘has only been possible through the tireless efforts and generosity of partners around the country.’

In California, we have the same sort of dynamic in some school board races. Diane Ravitch reports on her blog that in Santa Clara County, incumbent Anna Song is under attack by the charter lobby, which is throwing a few hundred thousand dollars to defeat her and support her pro-charter opponent. Song had voted against the opening of 20 Rocketship charter schools in her district, saying they would take money away from the traditional public schools.

The Mercury News newspaper reported that the Santa Clara County Schools Political Action Committee, formed at the suggestion of the California Charter Schools Association, is also spending money to reelect Grace Mah, who is running to keep her seat on the county school against a charter opponent.

This is just a taste of what is going on around the country.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 4, 2012