Money, power, and choices 

Tough day at school! Cute child near the blackboard indoors. Kid is learning in class. Complex math, arithmetic and examples. Numbers written with chalk on board.

 

As the 2018 election approaches, education is proving to be a major issue, but who has the biggest influence on candidates and voters? 

 

Most years, K-12 education ranks far below topics such as the economy, health care, and immigration among the issues of greatest concern to American voters. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, though, education has taken on a sizable, if not quite leading, role. Across the country, in races big and small, pollsters report high levels of interest in where the candidates stand on teacher pay, student safety, and other school-related topics.  

On the surface, that might suggest a broad resurgence in support for public schooling. But the truth is that public education means very different things to different people. Some voters think of free and open education as a great equalizer, an essential democratic institution that undergirds our very sense of ourselves as a nation. Others think of it solely as a means of promoting their own children’s interests — and they vote accordingly. Not everyone buys into the notion that public schools are meant to be yours, mine, and ours together. 

Some of the most consequential debates and decisions about public schooling have occurred behind the curtain, outside the view of ordinary Americans.  

Indeed, while public school systems, with their tax-based funding and local governing boards, may have been designed to secure the common good, they have changed dramatically over the last half century, becoming less and less equitable and more and more vulnerable to a host of political pressures and moneyed interests. Further, some of the most consequential debates and decisions about public schooling have occurred behind the curtain, outside the view of ordinary Americans. When they vote in local, state, and federal elections, most people — even voters who try to stay well-informed — know little about how campaign donations have influenced the positions their candidates take. 

Some of the most strident examples of how power, money, and elections intersect with education come from The Network for Public Education Action (NPE), a public school advocacy group started in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. Their 2018 report  Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools argues that there are forces at work trying to destroy public education, and that they must be stopped. To make their case, they cite a number of examples of state and local races where billionaires poured money into the campaigns of candidates that supported a choice/charter agenda. (For examples, they point to the 2014 special election mayoral race in Newark, N.J., and the 2015 Los Angeles Unified School District school board race.) In these and other important races, they contend, wealthy outsiders collaborate to “hijack the democratic process” and unduly influence voting in states and communities where they have no roots, no children, and no ownership. How, they ask, does that kind of outsider influence square with a system that is supposed to be locally controlled?  

It is a fair question. Even if many of these wealthy outsiders have the best of intentions, can we really say that a public system is locally controlled if one point of view is supported by so much external firepower? Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case made this fair question a moot point. Money from all kinds of sources can and does influence elections. Further, money also influences education policy directly, as Michigan State researcher Sarah Reckhow demonstrated in her 2012 book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics (Oxford University Press). Reckhow provided a careful and data-packed anatomy of how the Gates Foundation and other major donors have shaped K-12 decision making at every level, from local elections to federal policy making. That trend continues with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the latest tech titan to announce a billion-dollar education-focused campaign, this one aimed at transforming early childhood education.  

An education election? 

This year, education is a major issue in a host of races, and the national conversation about teachers, school choice, testing, and other school-related topics is having a significant effect on local campaigns — that’s why, earlier this fall, the Democratic National Committee proudly declared, “Education is on the ballot!” With a plethora of teachers running for office (including the National Teacher of the Year in Connecticut), Democrats are counting on concerns about local education to bring out voters and unseat Republicans. Playing off the unpopularity of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, most Democratic candidates are relying on good old-fashioned education promises (better pay for teachers and safer schools for students), and with DeVos they have the perfect foil: Wealthy, privileged, and deeply tied to the for-profit education industry, the secretary represents everything that is portrayed as a threat to public education. If they are successful, educator-candidates will not only affect local and state systems but, perhaps, have a profound effect on federal policy as well. 

This year, 36 states are holding governor’s races, and 87 legislative chambers (state senates and houses of representatives) are holding general elections. (To help clear through the clutter of state-level education governance, and to explain how state elections could influence education, the Education Commission of the States has put together a handy infographic.)  

Given that governors tend to wield considerable influence over local education policy making, those 36 elections will be particularly interesting to watch. In 17 of those states, citizens are guaranteed to elect a new chief executive, either because the incumbent chose not to run again or has reached a term limit. In 12 states, the governor will get to appoint the state’s chief state school officer (while another seven states will hold elections for their new state education chief). In 25 states, the governor will appoint members to the state board of education (while eight states and the District of Columbia will elect their state board members). And for anybody who’s still counting, governors in seven states also get to appoint state higher education officers. 

Few voters likely know much about the ways in which outside money have influenced these races. Rather, they’ll rush into the polling station either before or after work, maybe with a few kids in tow, and try to make the best decisions they can with the limited information available. (I’ll withhold from commenting on those people who choose not to vote at all . . . I doubt the editors of this magazine would be comfortable printing my thoughts on that topic.)  

Despite all the questions about how elected officials make decisions and who has the most influence over them, most Americans still believe that voting in state and local elections represents the best opportunity they have to express their policy views and preferences. That’s why this election cycle is so important . . . and so interesting. After two years of an administration that lauds local decision making while simultaneously deriding traditional public schools, we have no clear national vision for public education. Candidates may continue to wax poetic about the schools’ role in producing equal opportunities for all, but that mission has become harder and harder to achieve, and our policy makers have offered no plausible strategy by which to revive it.  

The truth is no one knows what the future holds for education, and no one election cycle will make or break things for our schools. But if enough people get out and vote, something equally important can happen. Americans themselves can express what they value most about public education.  

 

Citation: Ferguson, M. (2018). Washington view: Money, power, and choices. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 64-65. 

 

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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