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Commentary: The “Other” $1 Million Contribution

Alexander Russo | February 28, 2013

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Two education outlets — Hechinger Report (affiliated with Columbia University) and Education Week — have recently published stories out about the LAUSD School Board races focused on the large amount of money that’s been raised by the Coalition for School Reform.

Mainstream  outlets — the New York TimesWall Street Journal, and Washington Post — are almost sure to follow. If they do, however, they should take care to pay any attention to two key factors that are easily ignored or forgotten: (a) changes in campaign finance and disclosure laws that have fundamentally altered the political landscape in recent years, and (b) union contributions to state and local elections – which have a long history.

Three years ago, for example, the national teachers union called American Federation of Teachers (AFT) poured a reported $1 million into an effort to unseat a local official the union didn’t like — Washington, DC Mayor Adrien Fenty — and replace him with a challenger the union preferred named Vincent Gray. Sound familiar?

“Collaboration is the right way to do reform,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told Politico shortly after the 2010 primary election. “That’s who Vincent Gray is, that’s why our members supported him.”

By and large, the new EdWeek and Hechinger Report articles include useful if familiar information — along with a few tidbits that may be new.

The Education Week story (L.A. School Board Race Tops Spending Records) notes that spending on the LAUSD races is 80 percent from independent expenditures -and represents a 977 percent increase over the primary in 2009.  The story also notes high-spending precedents in New Orleans last year and in the state of Louisiana in 2011.

The Hechinger Report story (Local school districts are new target of education reformers) notes the strange path that school reform advocacy has followed in recent years starting from state and national efforts down to local races, rather than from the ground up.  State and national reform advocates have been getting involved in local races for the last two or three election cycles, Hechinger notes.

Both articles address the possibility of a voter backlash against the eye-popping outside funding.

However, outside funding coming into local races isn’t really new for labor unions.  State and national teacher unions have been helping out local affiliates — giving and loaning each other funds to help out with political races and ballot initiatives — for decades.
You can read more about the 2010 Mayoral primary in Washington DC in Politico (Teachers union helped unseat Fenty). Union president Weingarten is way too much of a political professional to have bragged about the union’s contribution or even taken credit for the win — a strategy that Mayor Villaraigosa and the Coalition might consider.
Perhaps the state and national affiliates can’t or won’t ride to UTLA’s rescue this time around — or don’t think LAUSD is winnable.  It remains possible that California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) will dump a bucket of cash into the race at the last minute before the primary on Tuesday, or during the runoffs.

But only a narrow, ahistorical look at outside funding focuses solely on reformers’ efforts to win local school board races, or ignores changes in campaign finance rules that have sent campaign spending skyrocketing in nearly every kind of political contest.

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