July 29, 2016; Tennessean

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which let corporations and labor unions make unlimited political contributions, increased the number of  501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. Their ability to lobby on public policy concerns and directly participate in election campaigns, combined with the anonymity they can give to their donors, made them much more valuable in this age of big-money politics. The wave of post-Citizens United political giving through 501(c)(4)s includes presidential elections and Senate and Congressional races, as well as those for governors’ houses and state legislatures, and now to the most local of contests, positions on local school boards. With this money comes a question about what tactics are appropriate for “social welfare” organizations to use, particularly when local and national interests clash.

Stand for Children (SFC) formed “to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, college or career training.” For almost two decades, it has tried to fulfill this mission by working with parents, communities, and organizations to advocate for “for strong policies at the state and local level, elect education champions who will keep children at the center of their policy priorities, and follow through to ensure new policies are effectively implemented in public school classrooms.” With a policy agenda and tactical approach set by its national leadership, SFC has sought to effect policy at the state and local level through a network of affiliated organizations.

So what happens when their national perspective clashes with the priorities of local community leaders? Recent school board elections in Nashville, Tennessee, provide a picture of SFC’s effect on local politics in this new era.

SFC is a strong advocate for market-based strategies for school improvement, including parental choice, charter schools, and limiting the power of unions. In Nashville, they saw an upcoming school board election as a chance to advance their vision and supported three pro-charter candidates who were running to unseat incumbents who did not agree with them. To accomplish this, the organization was willing and able to raise money outside the city and state for a local election to a degree that changed the very economics of local politics.

Writing for the Tennessean, Dave Boucher described the meaning of SFC’s ability to inject $200,000 into the campaign in its last six weeks.

It’s a significant amount of money for a Nashville school board race: By Aug. 2, 2014, the campaigns for all four school board candidates had raised $350,000 combined, according to Tennessean archives. This spending from Stand for Children doesn’t include any spending from the campaigns themselves or other outside organizations.

SFC was also able to spend an additional $500,000 to support legislative candidates who would back their agenda.

The Nashville experience is not unique. In the battle over educational strategy, significant amounts of money are being added to elections across the country. Donor anonymity makes it hard to know for sure if these are indeed local funds and this just represents local interests clashing over local issues. If that is the case, the amount of money being spent, while still a seismic shift, is an issue to be sorted out within the framework of the community. But if Stand For Children’s funders do come from outside Nashville and Tennessee, then there’s much more to be concerned about.

The pernicious anonymity granted to organizations like SFC raises strong questions about its public benefit. It may be time to strip away the veil and require that the source of funds spent by 501(c)(4)s on lobbying and campaigning be made public.—Martin Levine