The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The education group putting big money into this D.C. election cycle

A voting drop box for ballots in front of the Deanwood Community Center and Library in Washington, DC on June 6, 2022. (Joe Heim/TWP)
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The glossy fliers have been arriving in D.C. residents’ mailboxes in recent weeks: Ward 3 council candidate Eric Goulet (D) would bring “safer streets” and “stronger schools.” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) knows how to “fight and win for us,” another flier celebrating the mayor’s reelection bid read. And Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would “deliver” on education promises if reelected.

The group behind the thousands of election fliers? Democrats for Education Reform, a national education group — with a local D.C. chapter known as DFER D.C. — that has poured serious money into local elections across the country. The group, often at odds with teachers’ unions, has historically backed candidates who support mayoral control of schools and those who would advocate for robust charter sectors.

They’ve put big money into D.C. elections in recent cycles — and this election cycle appears to be no different. It reflects a national trend of deep-pocketed education groups shifting some of their focus from national politics and instead targeting local school board and council elections, believing they can better influence education policy and outcomes on the local level.

Why is so much money flowing into D.C.'s school board races?

DFER D.C. Independent Expenditure Committee spent more than $500,000 in 2018′s election cycle and more than $700,000 in 2020, more than any other outside group, according to D.C. campaign finance records. In 2022, the D.C. Board of Election deadline for outside groups to submit their next expenditure reports is not due until June 10, so it is unclear how much the group plans to spend in D.C. this election cycle.

The local chapter gets significant cash from big donors across the country, including in 2016 nearly $300,000 from Alice Walton, a daughter of the founder of Walmart and a backer of charter schools. That money flowing from outside D.C. has made DFER a target among some candidates and residents, particularly in a year when most candidates are participating in D.C.'s public financing election program, which caps the size of donations and uses public funds to match the donations.

Outside groups can spend as much as they want, but are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns.

“We definitely support candidates who believe in choice,” Jessica Giles, state director of DFER DC said in an interview. “We do a lot throughout the year to advance a student-centered agenda, though we mostly get attention during elections.”

It was hailed as the national model for school reform. Then the scandals hit.

Giles did not disclose how much the group will spend in D.C. this year, but noted it plans to spend “a lot,” putting forward “ample money to support all students.”

Putting money in local education races

A decade ago, political groups interested in education weren’t focused on local elections, according to Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy and politics at Michigan State University who co-wrote a book on outside money flowing into school board elections. Instead they tried to influence national politics through policies like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.

But between 2010 and 2014, Jacobsen said, groups like DFER emerged in local elections across the country, promoting school choice, charter schools and teacher evaluation systems that unions were against. During that time, it was overwhelmingly Democratic groups involved in local education politics, but in more recent times, conservative groups have become involved, pushing policies that would shape how race and racism is taught in schools and how teachers can talk about LGBT issues.

While D.C. doesn’t have a school board, the D.C. Council is charged with providing oversight of the city’s agencies and takes on some roles that typically fall to a school board.

“School board elections used to be low-cost affairs; $1,000 could make you a viable candidate,” Jacobsen said. “Both sides are now looking for allies in the local arena.”

In a city with an overwhelmingly Democratic voter base, the differences between the candidates’ education policies can be hard to spot for people who don’t follow the nuances of D.C.'s politicized education sphere. There are no polarizing debates here over how schools teach racism and the nation’s history, or controversies over the treatment of transgender students. Nearly all candidates seem to agree that students need more mental health supports and the city needs to devote more resources to equitably educate the city’s most vulnerable students — issues that DFER supports.

But there are some key differences in how the candidates think the city’s public schools should be governed, and how to balance the support of neighborhood schools and charter schools in a city where more than 40 percent of students attend a charter.

In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), a close ally of Bowser, dissolved the local school board, giving complete control over the city’s education agencies to the mayor. He appointed Michelle Rhee to serve as the school system’s chancellor, and she enacted controversial measures, such as a teacher evaluation system that ties teacher pay to student performance. The evaluation system led to hundreds of teachers being pushed out, and heightened tensions between city leaders and the teachers union.

In 2010, the American Federation of Teachers, the national union that D.C. teachers are part of, spent more than $1 million to successfully unseat Fenty. Still, many of the changes that Rhee and Fenty enacted remain, including the governance structure and the evaluation system. DFER DC wants to make sure that many of them remain.

Fighting for control of D.C. schools

There is a lot at stake this election cycle. Both of Bowser’s main mayoral opponents — council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who are running to the left of Bowser — say they want to loosen the grips of mayoral control, a governance change that Bowser says would set back academic progress in the city. DFER supports the current structure of mayoral control and is backing candidates who do as well.

The city’s public schools have made progress since 2007, but many of the touted successes have been undermined and questioned after a series of scandals and investigations — including an investigation that found that 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 did not meet city requirements to receive their diplomas. This has led some council members and residents to attack the city for weak public oversight of schools.

D.C. Council explores measures that would provide more education oversight, curtail mayor’s power over schools

While any meaningful change that would curtail the mayor’s control of the city’s education agencies is probably still a long way off, there does appear to be a growing consensus among the 13-member legislative body that the District needs to make structural changes to provide better oversight.

Democrats for Education Reform unsuccessfully mobilized to reelect Ward 4 council member Brandon T. Todd (D), a strong Bowser ally, in 2020. Todd answered in the group’s candidate questionnaire that he would not undermine the current system of mayoral control and said the teacher evaluation system should remain intact. Janeese Lewis George — a council member who had earned the support of the Washington teachers union — took the seat. The freshman council member has introduced legislation that would strip the Office of the State Superintendent of Education out of the mayor’s control.

DFER asked candidates in this year’s candidate questionnaire if they would support this legislation.

The group has also promoted candidates, including Bowser and Goulet, who want to increase the size of the city’s police force.

In the Ward 3 race, where Goulet is a candidate, longtime council member Mary M. Cheh (D) unexpectedly announced she would not run for reelection in February, leaving an open seat and a crowded field of potential candidates to replace her. Cheh has said she supports mayoral control, though has introduced legislation that would give the mayor less control over the District’s state education agency, and give the agency more oversight authority of schools.

“I think the accountability of mayoral control gets a lot done,” Goulet said. “Being able to have mayoral control in schools is important.”

Under election laws, outside groups cannot coordinate with individual campaigns, though they can mobilize voters and promote candidates. The group has conducted at least two professional polls for the mayor and Ward 3 races.

Matt Frumin, a Democratic Ward 3 council candidate, has criticized DFER DC for taking money that comes from outside the city, saying that elections should be shaped by local residents and money. Frumin, a longtime bolster of the city’s neighborhood schools, did not receive the DFER endorsement.

“It’s outrageous. Ward 3 is not for sale,” Frumin said. “The idea of the fair election process is that the election should be financed by the will of individual voters in the District.”

Giles countered that the group works with parents year-round and reflects the stances of many families in the city. She said the local chapter’s five employees live in D.C.

“We believe our direction,” she said, “is very much in line with what D.C. voters want.”

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