It was Tip O’Neil who made popular the phrase “All politics is local.” No adage has been more accurate in describing school board races, in big cities or small, across America, until recently. Education reformers have decided to pump big dollars into school board races in cities across states like California, Colorado, Tennessee, Michigan, and New Jersey, where charter schools and education corporations can make large sums of cash.
Much of the money comes from education reform groups like Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, Joe William’s Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First, or wealthy individuals like Michael Bloomberg and others. Foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation contribute millions of dollars to reform organizations. Add in the Citizens United decision with the ability to raise unlimited amounts of cash from anonymous donors across the country, and you have the perfect storm! Local school board races are now a national event, especially in big cities and poor cities, where charter schools are proliferating.
In Denver, in 2011, two education reform candidates out of three were elected, and currently retain a four to three majority on the school board. They raised nearly $65,000 in donations and in-kind contributions compared to six other candidates who averaged about $5,000 a piece. Even in poor, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 2013, reformers raised over $60,000 and took all but one of six seats. The amount of money raised and spent in these races astounded the candidates.
In Los Angeles, Eli Broad, philanthropist and millionaire, A. Jerrold Perenchio, media mogul, donated $250,000, each, for pro-charter candidate, Antonio Sanchez, They asked a few friends for donations and suddenly there was another $1.5 million in the pot. Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor, donated another million.
Sanchez’ opponent, Monica Ratliff, a fifth grade teacher who jumped in the race a few days before the deadline to file, had little money and no name recognition. She only had experience as a teacher and a union leader, and that should have been enough for Sanchez to bury her, or at least he thought. Ratliff never quit teaching during the race, and went to bed at 11:00 pm the night of the election, not knowing who had won, because she had to teach the next morning. Yet a funny thing happened in the City of Angels. The next morning when she awoke, she found herself a member of the Los Angeles School Board! There is hope!
A similar event took place in Wooster, Ohio, this past November, even though education reformers were not involved. WEA Union Vice President, Tim Gallagher thought a change was long overdue on the school board. He was tired of members who thought schools should be run like a business, so he decided to do something about it. He asked his mother to run. Dr. Janice Gallagher, retired, veteran educator and administrator, ran against incumbents who were well known in the community. Tim organized her campaign and found another resident, Dr. Tina Nelson, a local physician, to run as well.
It didn’t hurt that Dr. Gallagher was a Teacher of the Year for Cloverleaf Schools, in Medina County, and was the first All Ohio Teacher. She taught for 19 years, and has been an active member of Wooster since 1973. She had 4 children that all graduated from the Wooster City Schools, and spent 11 years as a central office administrator.
Tim found other residents to help him, and in the end, his efforts paid off, as Dr. Gallagher was elected, and defeated an incumbent. “It helps to have well qualified candidates to run,” he said “but we all know someone who can do it.”
If you have ever thought that one person cannot make a difference, think again. Union members need to get angry, and recruit and back good candidates. It’s easy to collect signatures for petitions, make phone calls to remind residents to vote, or knock on doors to hand out literature. It’s easy to write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. No longer can we sit on our hands and watch from afar our local school board races. Now is the time to take back our schools. Today is the day to get active in political races that will directly benefit our children and their future. If we don’t do this, who will? If we don’t do this, democracy and public education, as we know it, as we remember it, will be changed forever.
By Susan Ridgeway, Wooster Education Association