The Politicization of Local School Board Races
Advocacy forces and big money from outside the community wield influence but not always with the expected results
School Administrator, April 2020


Jeffrey Henig (rear), a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says outside moneyin a school board election can lead to instabilityand polarization.

Historically, local school board elections have tended to be low spending, low turnout and often parochial events. Studies of school board campaigns suggest that candidates typically spend under $1,000. Candidates in large districts often spend more, but 90 percent report spending less than $25,000. In November 2015, more than half of the 1,528 open school board seats in New Jersey had one or no candidates on the ballot, and 130 had zero candidates.

With limited funding and attention, outcomes typically hinge on personalities, name recognition or bursts of anti-incumbency following a localized scandal.

But today, after two decades in which the action in education seemed to be migrating to state capitals and Washington, D.C., the political landscape of education policymaking is changing once again. Education politics has become nationalized, but with a local twist. Reformers now see school district leaders and elected school boards as important vehicles for national agenda-setting and political engagement over educational issues. And they are acting on that belief.

Moneyed Influencers

In large and strategically influential districts, this can take the form of substantial campaign contributions from wealthy donors such as Michael Bloomberg or members of the Walton family, as well as national organizations, such as Stand for Children or Democrats for Education Reform. This is the focus of a 2019 book I co-authored with Rebecca Jacobsen and Sarah Reckhow, which looks closely at campaign contributions in school board elections in Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn. We analyzed 18,809 campaign contributions spanning election cycles from 2008 to 2014, interviewed board candidates, reviewed campaign material and coded media accounts to see what issues were being discussed.

Teachers' unions typically are portrayed as the organizational Goliath that overshadows other, weaker voices, but in the cities we studied they were outspent by out-of-district organizations promoting charter schools, high-stakes testing and other reforms the unions more typically oppose.

The impact of outside money was even more disproportionate when we looked at individual donors. Reformer-backed candidates received 17.8 percent of their campaign donations directly from just 132 individuals, who gave large amounts even in states where they did not live, while candidates backed by teachers’ unions received just 5.7 percent of their donations from individuals making large donations from beyond state lines.

Lobbying Impact

The nationalization of education politics infiltrates local political dynamics even when no campaign contributions go directly to local candidates. One way that national actors influence local districts is through the channel of state politics when gubernatorial candidates make education reform a key part of their platform or when statewide initiatives or referenda have the potential to shift policies on contentious issues. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is credited with giving $25 million to the Washington State Charter Schools Association, which advocated for a statewide charter law initiative in 2012 and then lobbied for legislation after the state’s highest court invalidated that result in 2015.

The increased intertwining of national, state and local politics can penetrate even small school districts that you’d expect to be under the radar of the big-gun public education combatants.

Morgan Hill, Calif., is a relatively small jurisdiction (population 37,900) that normally would not be the focus of outside interest groups. After the Morgan Hill Unified School District turned down applications from two charter schools, the schools’ organizers appealed to the county, which had the authority to overrule local decisions under the state’s charter laws. Before the appeal was heard, the Walton Family Foundation, headquartered in Arkansas, provided major funding support to the powerful California Charter Schools Association, which in turn made large donations to two candidates to the county board that would hear the appeal. Labor unions backed alternative candidates.

As was often the case in the jurisdictions we studied, outside money did not totally carry the day in Morgan Hill. One of the two candidates funded by CCSA lost in the election, and only one of the two local charter decisions was overruled. But outside actors re-shaped the terms of the debate and successfully tipped the balance to an outcome different from the one made by local leaders based on their assessments of community values and needs.

Nationalization can take the form of ideas as well as money when polarizing national issues infiltrate the local education agenda.

In 2018-19, by a narrow margin, the school board in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., north of Albany, voted to discontinue the practice of allowing grounds monitors to carry weapons. This led some local voters to mobilize around a slate of challengers to the board majority, turning the normally low-energy election into a hotly contested battle. They used $9,000 to hire an outside professional political marketing firm that claimed to have “years of presidential, statewide, congressional and local experience.” The firm helped shape a campaign echoing national battles over gun rights and the role of armed guards as a response to gun violence in schools nationwide.

A Reshuffled Deck

What does all this mean for school administrators at the community level? Some may indeed find their district subject to the rotating searchlight of national attention. A sharply divided school board or a hot ongoing debate over charters or testing might attract the attention of national actors who see the potential to tip the outcome of a school board election in their favored direction.

Even if a school district is not the target of big money, local leaders and their boards are not immune to the instability and polarization that can erupt when outside forces reshuffle local constituencies, adding spicy dashes of ideology to a local political stew normally blander and more predictable.

My advice on how to respond is threefold:

»First, avoid overreaction.

Your main focus should be on tending to your own garden. Despite concern that outside actors might roll over local democracy, my co-authors and I found that outside actors need local allies if they are to be effective. If you do a good job of engaging and building trust with parents and civic leaders, you’re much less likely to be knocked aside by outside actors and ideas.

»Second, make sure you understand the national debates.

Be conversant with the terms in which they are being contested. Rigid resistance or misunderstanding on your part can be interpreted as signs that you are uninformed or hold to antiquated notions.

»Finally, don’t overlook possible advantages.

Yes, the nationalization of education politics at the local level might be turned into an asset. Interest and support from national actors might sometimes strengthen your hand in dealing with local resistance, adding legitimacy and resources to your initiatives when they unsettle the status quo. 

JEFFREY R. HENIG is a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, N.Y. Twitter: @J_Henig. He is co-author of Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics.