Three political scientists have written a book about billionaires putting money into local school board elections. Typically, the wealthy are not writing checks for their own school board elections, but even if they were, they are able to swamp the spending of others.


The book is titled Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics. It was published by Harvard University Press. The authors are Jeffrey R. Henig of Teachers College, Columbia University, Rebecca Jacobsen of Michigan State University, and Sarah Reckhow of Michigan State University.


They examine the role of outside money in five districts: Denver; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Bridgeport; and Los Angeles.


On this blog, we have frequently noted this kind of activity in many districts. People like Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons, the DeVos Family, Reed Hastings, the Koch brothers, and Eli Broad, and groups like Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children (carrying money on behalf of wealthy donors) have intervened in local school board elections, always in favor of charters, vouchers, and high-stakes testing. The Network for Public Education Action Fund examined the intervention of wealthy elites in several districts in its report called “Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools.”


Here is where the NPEA report and the Henig book disagree. NPEA believes that the intervention of billionaires into local school board elections is fundamentally anti-democratic because it undermines the ability of local citizens to make their own choices. NPEA knows that the goal of the billionaires is to privatize public schools via charters and vouchers. Our view is that those who spend vast sums of money distort democracy and are trying to impose their views by the power of their wealth to buy advertising, staff, mailings, posters, and everything else involved in a political campaigns. When local people can no longer afford to compete for a seat on the local school board, democracy suffers.


Henig, et al. do not agree with NPEA. Their view is that the expenditure of large amounts of money by outsiders is neither good nor bad. It might be bad because the money drowns out local voices. But it might be good because it brings more media attention to the school board races.


They are agnostic. Looked at from their point of view, it really doesn’t matter if Michael Bloomberg and Alice Walton put a few millions into your local school board race and overwhelm your neighbors Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones, who can raise only $10,000 or $25,000.


They conclude: “The consequences of outside money are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Outside money can bring greater attention to elections that have, for far too long, been largely ignored by local media. Increased attention, however, can be skewed in favor of those with the most financial backing, leaving voters with little information about many candidates on election day. Similarly, increased media attention usually includes more information on policy issues, potentially educating voters about key issues facing their local schools; however, this increased attention is not evenly distributed across all issues.” And increased funding may produce increased voter turnout. “But our findings suggest it would be false—or at least premature—to conclude that the consequences of outside money are uniformly and decidedly good or bad.” (pp. 175-176).


The authors speculate about how this outside money might affect teaching and learning. “For teachers, we suspect that the influx of outside money could bring national and state debates about teacher accountability to their classroom door. Teachers might feel additional pressure to focus on areas that appear on standardized tests, as accountability pressure is ramped up by local school boards that focus more heavily on this issue. The hot glare of outside money in school board elections could mean that board members, regardless of affiliation, focus more time and energy on this policy issue, leaving teachers bearing the brunt of these expectations. For those worried about teacher recruitment and retention in local districts, such a focus might make their jobs even more challenging, as new teachers perceive these environments as hostile workplaces. For those who believe teacher accountability policies increase the quality of teachers, drawing attention to this issue through outside funding might be seen as a chance to improve overall performance.”


In short, you can expect that if the money people prevail, high-stakes testing will assume even greater importance; the district will have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, who are likely to see the district as a hostile workplace. You might also anticipate more closings of public schools and more openings of privately managed charter schools. These are not insignificant consequences.

Surely, you might think the authors would see these outcomes as problematic. But they prefer not to take a position. Is it too much to expect three political scientists who study the role of money in politics to look closely at the research about whether test-based accountability improves teaching? Shouldn’t they show that they are aware of the 2014 statement of the American Statistical Association that test-based accountability for individual teachers is invalid? Shouldn’t they give some thought to the consequences of replacing public schools with private management?


They prefer to be agnostic. Maybe ramping up the pressure on testing might be a good thing, maybe it might be a bad thing. Maybe letting the billionaires buy control of your district might be a bad thing, but then again maybe not.


Needless to say, I think the authors are wrong. It is okay for billionaires to buy up your local school district if it brings more media attention? I don’t think so. It is okay to stamp out local democracy if it brings more people to the polls and makes them more aware of the issues? I don’t think so.


If billionaires want to give money to underwrite hospitals, libraries, health clinics, or local schools, with no strings attached, then let them give.


But if they give money so as to take control of local decision-making, that strikes me as a blow against democracy. How can political scientists be agnostic? What am I missing?


The larger question, it seems to me, is completely ignored: the need for campaign finance reform in all elections.


I suggest that the authors of this book read Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Or Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. Their indifference to the dangers of allowing plutocrats to buy elections is frankly shocking. I don’t understand their agnosticism. I assume they don’t care because they are not bothered by what the billionaires want to do. But maybe I’m wrong and they just don’t want to take a stand in defense of democratic decision making.