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Why are teachers protesting in ‘blue’ cities?

Deep-pocketed national donors are changing local school politics. Teachers unions are scrambling to keep up.

In 2018, six states’ teachers walked out in high-profile protests against low pay and school system underfunding. News coverage showed teachers dressed in red; social media campaigns buzzed under the popular hashtag #RedforEd.

Four of the walkouts took place in “red” states, meaning Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship. What’s more, teacher union power is limited in these states, because teacher collective bargaining is either not required or is outright illegal.

Here’s the real reason teachers are revolting in the red states

But in 2019, teachers are protesting many of the same issues in blue cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland. For decades, Democratic strongholds such as these were considered bastions of union power. Teachers did not need to strike because they had other ways to meet their needs. As the most focused and fully mobilized group in education politics, unions often dominated in the low-profile, low-turnout and often off-cycle elections. With little organized opposition, they were able to maintain cordial and even chummy relations with politicians who favored union interests.

So why are these urban district teachers going on strike?

Here’s how we did our research

In a new book, “Outside Money in Local School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics,” we closely examine school board elections in five cities: Bridgeport, Conn.; Denver; New Orleans; Indianapolis; and Los Angeles. We find that, even in blue cities, teacher unions are seeing strong challenges to their electoral power. Nationalized political coalitions and issue debates are increasingly targeting local school districts and are operating across state boundaries. This nationalization of education politics can reduce teacher unions’ advantages in local politics.

To understand how nationalization operates, we focused on cities where media coverage suggested that outside influences were affecting local school board elections. We compiled a database of 18,809 campaign contributions across the five cities, which included two of the cities where teachers recently went on strike (Denver and Los Angeles). The data set spans election cycles from 2008 to 2014, and it includes contributions from individuals, PACs, independent expenditure committees, unions and businesses.

Using these data, we compare teacher union campaign contributions to a new wave of donors. The new donors include high-profile individual donors (including many who are influential in national education politics through philanthropic donations), as well as education reform organizations, such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Stand for Children.

Who are the new donors, and who do they support in school board elections?

Consider, for example, the campaign contributions of John Arnold, a Houston-based billionaire investor, former hedge fund manager and philanthropist. Arnold contributed a total of $63,400 to school board candidates and campaign committees in Denver, Los Angeles and New Orleans. These donations went exclusively to reform-oriented candidates who support charter schools in each city.

Arnold is just one of a growing number of extremely wealthy individuals who give at least $1,000 toward school board elections in a single election cycle and fund at least one local campaign outside their home state. We call these individuals “large national donors.” Collectively, the 132 large national donors in our data set are having a huge impact on local elections. This small number of contributors accounted for more than one out of every five dollars donated by individuals across the elections we examined.

Their involvement in education politics through local school board elections is relatively new. However, these donors have been, and continue to be, highly active national campaign contributors. Many serve on the boards of education nonprofits such as KIPP and Teach for America.

We coded each of the 122 school board candidates in our data set based on their organizational endorsements to identify which candidates were backed by unions, which by reformers and which were unaffiliated. The large national individual donors gave 98 percent of their funds to reform candidates and reform organizations. These reform groups pursue policies that aim to increase school and teacher accountability through standardized tests, expand the number of charter schools and sometimes work to curb or reform teacher tenure.

Comparing money from union campaigns to money from education reform organizations

We also directly examined the role of organizational funding, and teacher unions are no longer the 500-pound gorillas in these districts’ elections. As you can see below, in four of the five cities we studied, the education reform organizations and independent expenditure committees outspent teacher unions.

Organization contributions by city, 2008-14
Organization contributions by city, 2008-14

These trends have continued in Los Angeles through the most recent election cycle. In 2017, Los Angeles held a school board election that spent more campaign funds than had ever been spent before in the United States. And two-thirds of that spending came from organizations supporting charter expansion.

What do these trends mean for education politics?

The federal campaign contributions of these large national donors show that they are mostly Democrats. That fact reveals sharp divisions within the Democratic Party over education policy. And things just got tougher for unions. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Janus v. AFSCME decision, it ruled that public sector unions cannot require workers who don’t join the union to nevertheless pay union dues.

The Supreme Court dealt unions a big blow in the Janus decision. Here’s what you need to know about the political fallout.

As a result of these pressures, teacher unions are on the ropes. As we see in this recent wave of strikes, they’re eager to demonstrate that they can inspire their own ranks and win over public support.

As national political coalitions and donors increasingly influence local school politics, both unions and reformers try to connect these national agendas to local concerns. As unions weaken, then, perhaps it’s no surprise that teachers in Denver, Oakland and L.A. have borrowed symbols, strategies and salary concerns from their red state colleagues.

Sarah Reckhow (@SReckhow) is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Rebecca Jacobsen (@Rebec_Jacobsen) is an associate professor of education policy and politics in the College of Education at Michigan State University.

Jeffrey R. Henig (@J_Henig) is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College and a professor of political science at Columbia University.

Together they are the authors of “Outside Money in Local School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics” (Harvard Education Press, 2019).