“Money,” Pictures of money.

November 25, 2018; Washington Post

Elections are not only about who holds power in Washington, DC. When the polls closed on November 6th, voters had decided who would lead thousands of city councils, school boards, and other local governmental units that shape the basic services that are key to quality of life. In these hyper-partisan times, even local races have become battlegrounds for the policy battles and culture wars that resound across the national political stage as advocates recognized their impact. National interest in local races and the funding it brings has raised concerns about the power of money and influence in this arena—as well as the ongoing politicization of nonprofit organizations.

The Washington Post recently examined November’s school board election for an Alexandria, Virginia district serving 16,000 students. Not only was the cost of campaigning growing, but funds were now coming from distant donors and their networks of PACS, nonprofits, and foundations, whose interests went well beyond the fate of children in neighborhood schools.

“While most contenders for the Alexandria City School Board collected contributions of a few hundred dollars or less,” writes Debbie Truong. Veronica Nolan and Christopher Suarez outraised some opponents more than tenfold. The source of their financial boost: Leaders in Education Fund, the political giving arm of Leadership for Educational Equity, an organization that trains Teach for America alumni to run for public office and is tied to billionaire donors allied with the charter school lobby.”

This, of course, is hardly the first time that a school district election has been tilted by outside money. As NPQ noted last year, outside funding of pro-charter candidates in school board elections for the Los Angeles Unified School District led to the election of “four board members who came into power with the strong backing of charter school supporters and who now make up a majority of the seven-member body.”

While the Leaders in Education Fund, a PAC, did not give the Post an indication of what their goal for these contributions was, they are aligned with Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a 501c3 organization that did respond to their questions about the campaign. In a statement given to the Washington Post, LEE described itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership development organization focused on civic change. We believe that having a diverse set of equity-minded leaders with classroom experience at the decision-making table will drive the changes necessary to ensure that every child will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

Public education supporters, looking at where the money for this campaign effort is coming from, see the situation as less about good government and more about school reform at its worst. From their perspective, it is part of a larger effort to change public education into a system of school choice, charter schools, and voucher programs. Carol Burris, speaking for the Network for Public Education to the Post, said that by “stacking the board” and “infusing campaign cash into school board races,” wealthy donors can “get charter schools in.” NPE illustrated this strategy in a report, Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools, which highlighted nine other contests where billionaires and their families “contributed to at least three races or donated more than $1 million.”

While Leadership for Educational Equity and the Leaders in Education Fund PAC describe themselves as being in the business of helping teachers, many of them Teach for America alumni, become more engaged in setting educational policy, their leadership is intertwined with many major financial supporters of market-based educational reform, including the Walton and Bloomberg families.

Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton…serves on the board of Leadership for Educational Equity…so does Emma Bloomberg …daughter of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg….The Waltons, Michael Bloomberg, and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Leadership for Educational Equity board member, were among a cadre of wealthy donors who bankrolled pro-charter political action committees that steered $17 million to “charter-friendly” candidates vying for state legislature seats in 2016, the Associated Press reported.

Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a nonprofit research and policy center, told the Post that “the Leaders in Education Fund probably threw money behind the Alexandria candidates in hopes the candidates would eventually seek state office. Building influence in the state legislature could result in an expansion of charter schools.”

“The funders have an agenda,” Cohen says. “I don’t necessarily think their agenda is to destroy public education but…part of the charter growth movement [is] weakening public education. Money always has an agenda.”

Beyond the debate about education strategy lie important questions about the role of nonprofit organizations in the political process. When created to be elements in a broad advocacy effort with interlocking donors and leaders, they challenge the rationales nonprofits have for claiming special status about serving a societal, not personal, purpose. NPQ recently noted that “Charitable nonprofits do not exist to launder political money; we are here to solve problems in our communities.” As an election for a local school board well illustrates, this is more than a theoretical worry.—Martin Levine