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Spending on School Elections

It will probably surprise many readers, but when it comes to spending on school elections, teachers unions make megacorporations, industry associations and labor federations combined seem like pikers. I was reminded of this fact after reading John Nichols's otherwise excellent essay in The Nation about the race for a seat on the nonpartisan board of education in Denver ("Big Money, Bad Media, Secret Agendas: Welcome to America's Wildest School Board Race," Oct. 21).

Nichols described how "over-the-top spending by wealthy elites and corporate interests," coupled with "partisan consultants jetting in to shape big-lie messaging" and "media outlets that cover spin rather than substance" have converged on a local school board contest. The concerns he raises are real, but unfortunately he leaves readers with the distinct impression that what is taking place is peculiar to big business. It is not.

To understand why, it's necessary to take a closer look at the numbers. The NEA and the AFT distributed $71.7 million on candidate and issue campaigns in the 2007-08 election cycle ("The Long Reach of Teachers Unions," Education Next, Fall 2010). Granted not all of this money was spent on local board of education races alone. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that teachers unions are not exactly neophytes. They are up to their elbows in the same game as corporations and other special interest groups.

Further, what is misleading in Colorado at least is that teachers unions are able to report their finances in a special way. Under a 2002 state constitutional amendment, small individual donors are allowed to give 10 times more to candidates than committees. Contributions under $20 are not considered "itemized" and don't have to be reported individually. The Colorado Education Association, therefore, filed a finance report on Oct. 17 showing a total of $192,358.80 in contributions. All but $39 were classified as non-itemized contributions of fewer than $20 from different, unidentified donors. (To learn the outcome of the election, see "Denver's School Board Battles" by Mike Elk that was published in In These Times on Nov. 2.)

The way elections are held in this country assures that outside money plays an overwhelming role in determining the outcomes. Teachers unions are not the villains that reformers make them out to be. But if we're going to talk about influence buying, then we can't omit them from the discussion. They are certainly entitled to make their voice heard, but they are no different from their opponents in the means they use.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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