Still, the school board races in the District have become symbolic battlegrounds over the future of public education, an expensive phenomenon playing out in local races elsewhere. 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.
“I was shocked,” said Emily Gasoi, a candidate for the Ward 1 State Board of Education seat whose opponent raised nearly $60,000 as of August, more than three times as much as Gasoi. “I didn’t realize this was going to be a race about money.”
With the mayor and attorney general facing no serious challengers for reelection this year, the nine-member state board of education features three competitive races in November. A special election for the Ward 4 seat is set for December. The school board seats — not all nine are up for election this year — are intended to be nonpartisan, and contenders do not compete in primaries.
One measure of the intensity enveloping this year’s races: By Aug. 10, candidates had received as much in campaign contributions as hopefuls did in the full election cycle four years earlier.
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.
The contentious races come as the school system reels from controversies and city leaders debate whether there should be more checks and balances on the mayor, who appoints nearly all of the city’s education leaders. The D.C. Council is considering measures that would take away the authority of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to appoint the state superintendent of education and create an education research center beyond the purview of the mayor.
In most of the State Board of Education races, the candidates are divided over whether the mayor should keep a tight grip on the schools, with a charter advocacy group backing candidates who support mayoral authority.
The Ward 1 race is among the most contentious and costly. The current holder of the seat is not seeking reelection.
Jason Andrean, a finance manager who sits on the board of a charter school, faces Gasoi, a former teacher who sends her daughter to a language immersion charter school. Both candidates have received more than half of their donations from outside the District.
But Andrean, who raised nearly $60,000 as of Aug. 10, has drawn more scrutiny because of his ties to the charter world. He received an endorsement from the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform — a powerful advocacy organization that promotes charter schools, tenure reform and other policies that teachers unions have traditionally fought.
Andrean resigned from Democrats for Education Reform’s board in January to run for the open seat.
Gasoi was endorsed by the Washington Teachers’ Union.
Democrats for Education Reform is credited with helping to decide low-turnout D.C. school board races in 2014, and vocal proponents of the traditional school system fear that could happen again.
“There is no hiding the fact that national players with an agenda are investing thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars, to guide the most local elections that we have, which is education,” said Matt Frumin, an education activist in the city.
Josh Henderson, acting director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, said that doesn’t include his group. It hasn’t donated to any of the four candidates it endorsed — even though the D.C. chapter received more than $350,000 in contributions between January and mid-August, with most coming from outside the District, according to financial reports.
Instead, Henderson said, the candidates have tapped into their own networks for contributions. While the organization has touted its endorsements in emailed newsletters, Henderson said it will mostly support candidates by helping them canvass in neighborhoods.
Henderson said that along with backing mayoral control, his group supports a new citywide ranking system that assigns one to five stars to campuses in the charter and traditional public school systems depending on performance. The initiative, expected to roll out in December, is controversial because critics say it relies too heavily on standardized test scores, and they fear that neighborhood schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families could fare poorly. The State Board of Education narrowly approved the ranking system this year.
“Our candidates have deep roots in the education community,” Henderson said. “I don’t think it’s that they are not getting support from D.C. They are just getting support from elsewhere, too.”
Andrean said his cash trickled in the old-fashioned way. The New York native said he picked up phones and sent emails to everyone he knew.
Georgia resident Everton Blair donated $200 each to Andrean and to Zachary Parker, a Ward 5 state board candidate. (Parker did not receive Democrats for Education Reform’s endorsement, but his opponent Adrian Jordan did.) Blair said he befriended Andrean and Parker while on a White House education fellowship in the city three years ago and was impressed with their leadership.
“These are two colleagues who I believe deeply in,” said Blair, who is running for a school board seat in an Atlanta suburb. “There are a lot of divisive issues in education that don’t need to be divisive. We are all talking about ensuring that our kids have access to high-quality education in high-quality schools.”
Ward 6 candidate Jessica Sutter — a Democrats for Education Reform-backed contender in a heated battle against incumbent Joe Weedon — said that with the exception of a handful of donors, she knows the people outside of the District who contributed to her campaign. Sutter, a former teacher who wrote her dissertation on charter-school closures and reopenings, had raised about $20,000 as of August, more than double Weedon’s amount.
Sutter said that while she has been vocal about charter schools, she also supports the traditional system. “When you have almost half the kids in charters, they are not a fringe element,” she said.
But Weedon, who has two children in the traditional public school system, said his connection to the schools is as a local parent, and he doesn’t have the same outside networks to tap for donations. He said the nearly $10,000 he raised as of August is double what he raised for his 2014 bid.
“It’s been about grass roots,” Weedon said. “Making sure people know I’m on the ballot and attending community events just like I’ve always done.”