The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Money continues to trickle into unusually expensive D.C. State Board of Education races

Election volunteer James Morris puts up signs to guide primary voters in June at the Marie Reed Recreation Center in Northwest Washington.
Election volunteer James Morris puts up signs to guide primary voters in June at the Marie Reed Recreation Center in Northwest Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Money continues to trickle to the candidates running to be on the D.C. State Board of Education — positions that wield little power in the District but have attracted significant amounts of money.

More than $225,000 has flowed into four board races that will be decided Nov. 6, according to the latest campaign finance reports. That total dwarfs the $150,000 the races generated during the 2014 election cycle.

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

Four seats on the nine-member board are up for reelection in November. A special election for the Ward 4 seat is set for December. The school board seats are intended to be nonpartisan, and contenders do not compete in primaries.

The city’s elected school board was stripped of most of its power in 2007 when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wrested control of the school system. Now, the school board is limited to setting broad policies governing graduation requirements, academic standards and teacher qualifications.

Still, the races have pitted vocal proponents of the charter sector against advocates of the traditional public school system, making for unusually contentious elections.

The Ward 1 race, the most expensive, has brought in nearly $115,000. Jason Andrean, a businessman endorsed by the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform — a high-profile pro-charter-school organization — has raised more than $65,000. Andrean stepped down from that organization’s board in January to run for office.

His candidacy has drawn criticism for dominating donation hauls that largely came from outside the District. More than half of Andrean’s 564 donations came from people who do not reside in the city.

But Andrean’s competitors, who trail him in donations, have also received most of their donations from outside the District.

Emily Gasoi, a former teacher who won the endorsement of the Washington Teachers’ Union, has raised $30,694.

Callie Kozlak, who made a late entry into the race, has raised $16,140, according to her Wednesday campaign finance report.

“Because I have worked in education, I know my network cares deeply about these issues, so I know that was helpful in raising these funds quickly,” said Kozlak, who was a Teach for America teacher for two years in the District and now works on education issues for a Hispanic community advocacy organization. “Knowing that there is money in this race brings the pressure to raise more money.”

School board races in the District and across the country have become symbolic battlegrounds over the future of public education. Advocates of the traditional public school system are facing off against proponents of a robust charter-school sector. And backers of charters — publicly funded and privately operated schools that educate nearly half of the District’s public school students — often bring with them big money from outside the city. The Washington Post wrote about this phenomenon earlier this month.

The D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform has backed three candidates running for the board in November, but not all of its backed candidates are leading their opponents in fundraising.

In Ward 5, Zachary Parker, who has the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union, has raised $44,944. One of his opponents — the Democrats for Education Reform-backed Adrian Jordan — raised $18,548, according to his campaign finance report.

“I believe that between the endorsements, the volunteerism as well as the donations we have received, it conveys the strong community support my campaign has in this race,” Parker said.

In Ward 6, incumbent Joe Weedon, a nonprofit group employee who has children in the neighborhood school system, faces Jessica Sutter, a former teacher.

Weedon, who received the Washington Teachers’ Union endorsement, raised more than $15,000, according to campaign finance filings released Wednesday.

Sutter, a Democrats for Education Reform-backed candidate, raised more than $21,000.

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