How much was a single vote worth in the D.C. State Board of Education elections? Maybe $3? $5? Even $8?
Those races gained increased visibility courtesy of generous donors who contributed more than $250,000 to 10 candidates vying for positions that hold little power.
In one race, the second-place finisher raised more than $66,000 and received about 8,500 votes. That amounted to nearly $8 per vote. The winner in the Ward 1 race spent about $3 per vote, while the third-place finisher spent more than $5 for every vote she received. Candidates running in three other races spent upward of $3 per vote.
And that doesn’t include the $150,000 that Democrats for Education Reform, a powerful advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, tenure restructuring and other policies that teachers unions have traditionally fought. The group spent money on fliers and canvassers for the three candidates it backed.
And it doesn’t reflect resources the Washington Teachers’ Union deployed to help candidates it endorsed.
So in January, the four winners begin their terms in seats interest groups and donors nationwide spent an unprecedented amount of money helping them win. But will that change how they govern?
“The money does speak to the concern that people across the country have about education,” said Ward 5 member-elect Zachary Parker, who raised about $50,000 and received 14,558 votes. “I feel less obligated to govern in a certain way based on the money that was given by donors, but more so based on what the goal was all along, which is about student outcome.”
The city’s elected school board was stripped of most of its power in 2007 when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wrested control of the school system. Now, the board is limited to setting broad policies governing graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.
The money pouring into the District’s education races mirrors the nationalization of local education races across the country, according to Evan Crawford, an assistant professor at the University of San Diego specializing in education politics and local elections. Crawford said local education races used to be less political, but once national politicians began taking partisan stances on education policies, national politics trickled down to the local races. The money quickly followed.
Crawford and other academics have started studying how this money influences the policies these officials push on the dais, but have no conclusive answers.
“If the people donating the money didn’t think it would have an effect, then they probably wouldn’t be donating,” Crawford said. “Every indication is that we are going to see more and more money spent on these school races as we have more debates about what education reforms work, whether it’s vouchers or charters, or teacher accountability in the form of merit pay.”
In the District, there are no primaries, and candidates are not affiliated with political parties. But political divisions still emerged in this year’s races.
School report cards highlighted some of the differences among candidates.
The District’s State Board of Education last year approved the framework to create a five-star ranking system to help parents compare charter and traditional public schools. Candidates backed by the Washington Teachers’ Union typically said the rankings relied too heavily on test scores and could hurt traditional public schools with significant populations of students with special needs and children from low-income families. And while the candidates backed by Democrats for Education Reform said the ranking system could be improved, they generally supported it.
Democrats for Education Reform spent $150,000 on candidates who appeared to strongly support the charter sector and who backed robust mayoral control of the District’s schools. The teachers union used volunteers to run phone banks and canvass for candidates who it believed would bolster neighborhood schools in the traditional public school system.
Jessica Sutter was the only one of the three candidates backed by Democrats for Education Reform to win her race, prevailing in Ward 6.
Josh Henderson, acting director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, said the organization was thrilled Sutter defeated the incumbent. Even though two of his group’s candidates lost, Henderson said it was important to back those hopefuls. He said the group plans to work with all members of the board — even if the candidates did not portray themselves as big backers of the charter sector.
“It’s really important,” Henderson said. “While the State Board of Education does not have a lot of inherent power, they certainly have some implied ones.”
A special election Dec. 4 will decide the Ward 4 seat on the D.C. State Board of Education, and Democrats for Education is backing Rhonda Henderson, a former teacher who works for a company that provides business management services to charter schools. Henderson, who has garnered $16,000, has outraised her three opponents. The special election is not expected to have a high turnout.
Emily Gasoi, the winner in the Ward 1 race, raised more than $40,000 and said she was surprised how much money flowed into her race. Gasoi, who was endorsed by Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, said she would support publicly funded elections that would allow candidates to campaign with the same amount of money. She said this would allow candidates to focus on substantive education policy and not on raising money.
“It doesn't help the democratic situation,” Gasoi said. “This race would have been more about the issues if there wasn't so much money involved.”