In many communities across the United States, school board elections are a local, grassroots affair. In my own community, for example, we will elect three new members to the board of education. I have signs in my front yard for three of the four candidates who are running for office and I have modestly donated to one of the campaigns. My choice of candidates is based on considerable conversation with one of the candidates and a careful study of the priorities of each of the others. I spent three hours last week at a local candidates’ night listening to candidates for local offices including all of those running for school board. My choices are based on my grasp of the issues in our local schools and personal information I’ve been able to gather.
But in a growing number of mostly bigger cities, school board elections are being dominated by Astroturf campaigns that merely pretend to be run on a grassroots level. Outside money, frequently from out of state and pooled anonymously by dark money super PACs, is being heavily invested in advertising for particular local candidates chosen for their corporate-reform, pro-privatization ideological purity.
This November an Astroturf school board election is happening in Denver, Colorado, where Raising Colorado, a super PAC, is bundling money. Carol Burris and Darcie Cimarusti, writing for the Network for Public Education, expose a national fund raising network working hard to influence local school board elections.
Burris and Cimarusti report: “Raising Colorado is the name of a super PAC that spends money in Colorado elections. According to the Office of the Colorado Secretary of State, Raising Colorado is run by Jennifer Walmer from an office in Littleton, Colo. Its stated purpose is to support Colorado candidates who ‘advocate for high-quality public education’ through ‘uncoordinated, independent expenditures.’ The reality of Raising Colorado, however, is something far more complex. Walmer is not a lone activist collecting donations to support candidates who advocate for public schools. The real action happens at Raising Colorado’s true address: 32 Gold Street in Brooklyn, New York. At that same address, in the same suite, you will find: Democrats for Education Reform-Arizona, Philadelphia 30 PAC, and Fairness for Colorado.”
Then there is ERNA: “In 2014, that same address housed a ‘charitable nonprofit’ called Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), from which Wolmar received part of her salary. ERNA listed its 2015 address as 222 Broadway, 19th Floor in NYC, the same address as the New York City branch of the PAC Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Walmar is also the Colorado director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group founded and supported in large part by hedge fund managers that was formed before the 2008 presidential election and that embraced corporate (school) reform and school choice.”
Burris and Cimarusti continue: “Raising Colorado, whose formal designation is an independent expenditure committee (IEC), is not a grass-roots organization. It is part of what looks like an elaborate shell game intended to hide the identities of wealthy out-of-state donors who want to overwhelm races with their contributions, but do not want their identities known. It supports candidates that support charter schools, shutting down traditional public schools, evaluating teachers by test scores and all of the other ‘reforms’ dear to the hearts of those who want to corporatize public education.”
So far in this election cycle, Raising Colorado has received two donations—both in October of 2017—one donation of $325,000 and another of $300,000. Both donations are from Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA)—the 501(c)(4) supposed social welfare organization that shares its New York office with DFER. Education Reform Now Advocacy involved itself in the Denver School Board election two years ago, when donations of $236,000 from ERNA helped tip the election—giving school privatizers control of the Denver School Board. That majority is at stake in the November 2017, Denver School Board election.
But as Burris and Cimarusti remind us, “ERNA’s reach and interests go well beyond Denver. In 2014, the group spent more than $5.7 million in political expenditures, with over $3 million going to Newark First, a PAC listed at ERNA’s own Broadway address. The purpose of Newark First was to get Shavar Jeffries elected mayor of Newark, N.J. That effort failed, in part, because the citizens of Newark became aware of the involvement of big New York City money flooding into their mayoral race. Jeffries is now president of both ERNA and Democrats for Education Reform. Yet despite the millions of dollars flowing in and out of ERNA, if you search the Web to learn about it, you will not find a website. How exactly does one learn about the ‘social welfare’ work the organization does, or how to contribute?”