The glossy flyers have been hitting DC residents’ mailboxes in recent weeks: Ward 3 council candidate Eric Goulet (D) would bring “safer streets” and “stronger schools.” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) knows how to “fight and win for us,” read another flyer celebrating the mayor’s re-election bid. And Council President Phil Mendelson would “deliver” on his education promises if re-elected.
The group behind the thousands of election leaflets? Democrats for Education Reform, a national education group — with a local DC chapter known as DFER DC — that has poured big money into local elections across the country. The group, often at odds with teachers’ unions, has consistently supported candidates who support mayoral control of schools and those who would advocate for robust chartered sectors.
They’ve poured a lot of money into DC elections in recent cycles — and this election cycle looks no different. This reflects a nationwide trend of deep-pocketed education groups diverting some of their attention from national politics and instead targeting school board and local council elections, believing they can better influence policy and school outcomes. education at the local level.
Why Is So Much Money Flowing Into DC School Board Races?
DFER DC Independent Expenditure Committee spent over $500,000 in the 2018 election cycle and more than $700,000 in 2020, more than any other outside group, according to DC campaign finance records. In 2022, the DC Board of Elections deadline for outside groups to submit their next expense reports isn’t due until June 10, so it’s unclear how much the group plans to spend in DC this election cycle. .
The local chapter receives significant funds from major donors across the country, including in 2016 nearly $300,000 from Alice Walton, a daughter of the founder of Walmart and a funder of charter schools. This money from outside DC has made the DFER a target among some candidates and residents, especially in a year when most candidates participate in DC’s public fundraising campaign program, which caps the amount of donations and uses public funds to match donations.
Outside groups can spend as much as they want, but are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns.
“We definitely support candidates who believe in choice,” said DFER DC State Director Jessica Giles in an interview. “We do a lot throughout the year to advance a student-centered agenda, though we mostly get attention during elections.”
It has been hailed as the national model for school reform. Then the scandals broke out.
Giles didn’t reveal how much the group will be spending in DC this year, but noted that he plans to spend “a lot,” emphasizing “enough money to support all of the students.”
Put money into local education races
A decade ago, political groups interested in education didn’t focus on local elections, according to Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of politics and education policy at Michigan State University, who co-wrote a book on outside money pouring into school board elections. Instead, they tried to influence national politics through policies such as No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.
But between 2010 and 2014, Jacobsen said, groups like the DFER emerged in local elections across the country, promoting school choice, charter schools and teacher evaluation systems against which unions were opposed. During this time, it was mostly Democrat groups involved in local education policy, but more recently conservative groups have become involved, pushing policies that would shape the way race and racism are taught in schools. and how teachers can talk about LGBT issues.
Although DC does not have a school board, the DC Council is responsible for overseeing the city’s agencies and performs certain roles typically performed by a school board.
“School board elections used to be a low-cost affair; $1,000 could make you a viable candidate,” Jacobsen said. “Both sides are now looking for allies in the local arena.”
In a city with a predominantly Democratic electoral base, the differences between the candidates’ education policies can be difficult to spot for people who don’t follow the nuances of DC’s politicized education sphere. There are no polarizing debates here about how schools teach about racism and the nation’s history, nor controversies about the treatment of transgender students. Nearly all of the candidates seem to agree that students need more mental health support and that the city needs to dedicate more resources to equitably educate the city’s most vulnerable students — issues supported by the DFER.
But there are key differences in how the candidates think the city’s public schools should be governed and how to balance support for neighborhood schools and charter schools in a city where more than 40% of students attend a charter.
In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), a close Bowser ally, dissolved the local school board, giving the mayor full control of the city’s education agencies. He appointed Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the school system and she passed controversial measures, such as a teacher evaluation system that links teacher pay to student performance. The appraisal system led to the expulsion of hundreds of teachers and heightened tensions between city leaders and the teachers’ union.
In 2010, the American Federation of Teachers, the national union of which DC teachers belong, spent more than $1 million to successfully overthrow Fenty. Still, many of the changes Rhee and Fenty adopted remain, including the governance structure and rating system. DFER DC wants to make sure many of them stay.
Fighting for control of DC schools
There is a lot at stake in this election cycle. Bowser’s two main mayoral opponents — councilman Robert C. White Jr. (D-At wide) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who are running to the left of Bowser — say they want loosening the mayor’s grip of control, a change in governance that Bowser believed would retard academic progress in the city. The DFER supports the current structure of mayoral control and supports candidates who do as well.
The city’s public schools have made progress since 2007, but many of the vaunted successes have been undermined and called into question after a series of scandals and investigations – including a survey that found that one in three graduates in 2017 did not meet the city’s requirements to receive his diplomas. . This has led some council members and residents to attack the city for weak public oversight of schools.
DC Council explores measures that would ensure greater oversight of education and reduce mayor’s power over schools
While any meaningful change that would reduce the mayor’s control over the city’s education agencies is likely still a long way off, there appears to be a growing consensus among the 13-member legislature that the district needs to make structural changes to provide better monitoring. .
Democrats for Education Reform campaigned unsuccessfully to re-elect Ward 4 Councilman Brandon T. Todd (D), a strong Bowser ally, in 2020. Todd responded in the group’s candidate questionnaire that he would not undermine the current mayoral control system and said that the teacher evaluation system must remain intact. Janeese Lewis George — a board member who had won support from the Washington teachers union — took the seat. The freshman council member introduced legislation that would strip the office of the state superintendent of education of the mayor’s control.
The DFER asked candidates in this year’s candidate questionnaire if they would support this legislation.
The group has also promoted candidates, including Bowser and Goulet, who want to increase the size of the city’s police force.
In the race for Ward 3, where Goulet is a candidate, longtime council member Mary M. Cheh (D) unexpectedly announced that she would not run for re-election in February, leaving one seat open and a field crowded with potential candidates to replace her. Cheh said she supports mayoral oversight, although she has introduced legislation that would give the mayor less control over the district’s public education agency and give the agency more power to oversee schools. .
“I think the responsibility of the mayor’s control does a lot,” Goulet said. “Being able to have control of the mayor in the schools is important.”
Under election laws, outside groups cannot coordinate with individual campaigns, although they can mobilize voters and promote candidates. The group conducted at least two professional polls for the Mayoral and Ward 3 races.
Matt Frumin, a candidate for Democratic Ward 3 council, criticized DFER DC for taking money from out of town, saying elections should be shaped by local residents and money. Frumin, a longtime supporter of the city’s neighborhood schools who says there should be more independent oversight of schools, did not receive DFER’s endorsement.
” It’s scandalous. Ward 3 racing was not for sale,” Frumin said. “The idea of the fair electoral process is that the election must be funded by the will of the individual voters in the district.”
Giles countered that the group works with parents year-round and reflects the views of many families in the city. She said the local’s five employees live in DC
“We think our direction,” she said, “is very much in line with what DC voters want.”