Election analysis

Smoke screen of outside money, complex disclosure laws obscure spending in school board races

This screenshot is from a video produced by Americans for Prosperity, an outside group involved in the Douglas County school board elections. The video urges viewers to call board members and thank them for supporting school choice but doesn’t suggest voting for or against specific candidates.

Good luck if you’re trying to follow the money in Colorado’s increasingly expensive and contentious school board races.

Increased involvement by outside groups and inconsistencies in state law have made it harder for voters to track who’s supporting board candidates.

“We’ll probably never know” how much money was spent in 2015 school board races, said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a research and advocacy group.

Referring to Jefferson County, Colorado’s hottest board contest, journalist Sandra Fish said, “We’re never going to know how much money is being spent on this recall.”

Board campaign spending started to escalate in 2009, when total contributions to candidates for the Denver Public Schools board went well into six figures. DPS elections have continued to be high dollar since then, and candidates in Douglas County and Jefferson County have jumped on that bandwagon.

Some observers project contributions will top $1 million this year in Jeffco, where a recall campaign against three incumbents is combined with a regular election for two other board seats.

Several factors are involved in the growth of school board campaign spending and in the difficulty of tracking that money:

  • Organized groups not directly connected to individual candidates have become bigger players in board races.
  • Even as contributions and spending have soared, state campaign finance laws require less frequent public financial reporting by outside groups on board contests than is required for legislative and other state races in general elections.
  • That problem of limited disclosure is particularly acute with independent expenditure committees, which spend money on campaign ads independently of candidates but don’t have to provide as much detail in off-year elections.
  • A different set of campaign committees, known commonly as C4s, can spend money in campaigns without any public disclosure of their activities, depending on how they word their ads.
  • Finally, school board seats are among a handful of Colorado elected offices for which there are no limits on individual contributions to candidates.

The rise of outside committees

School board races traditionally were funded by individual contributions to candidates, with teachers union committees the largest but still modest contributors in some bigger districts.

Increasing polarization over school choice, district budgets, the role of teachers unions and issues like vouchers have drawn increasing outside interest in school board races.

For instance, in the 2013 Douglas County board elections, $228,378 was contributed to candidates but there was at least in $220,943 in independent expenditures by outside groups, according to data compiled by Ethics Watch.

That pattern is continuing this year in both Dougco and Jeffco.

“We are spending in the low six figures in both Jeffco and Dougco on educating residents about the positive reforms of the school boards,” said Michael Fields, Colorado head of Americans for Prosperity.

In Dougco, “low six figures” would exceed what the six candidates have raised themselves. Americans for Prosperity is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, who are major funders of conservative causes at the national and local levels.

In Denver, a similar dynamic is playing out, albeit on the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, is a major purchaser of campaign materials supporting DPS board candidates who support the district’s reform efforts. Different kinds of committees connected to teachers unions are major direct contributors to opposition candidates.

Ethics Watch has been working to track 2015 spending in the Jeffco recall and has produced a graphic following “traceable” and “untraceable” money. See the graphic at the bottom of this article for the group’s analysis of some 2013 school board spending.

Information limited in off-year elections

State election laws govern a bewildering variety of campaign organizations, including candidate committees, issue committees, small donor committees, independent expenditure committees and others.

The most important committees in school board elections are candidate committees, independent expenditure committees and small donor committees. Small donor committees are the traditional vehicle for unions to make campaign contributions, and those committees usually are funded by dues check-offs. Such committees can contribute to candidate committees, but independent committees can’t.

Different rules apply to different kinds of committees – who can contribute to them, the size of those contributions they can receive, to whom they can give money and what they have to disclose in periodic reports to the secretary of state’s office.

But all those committees have one thing in common – they have to disclose their activities more frequently in even-numbered years when general elections are held than they do in odd-numbered years, when school board elections are held.

In even-numbered years most committees must file reports every two weeks between the beginning of September and the general election in November. Some reports also are required earlier in the year.

But in odd-numbered years most committees have to file only a single report in mid-October and then not report again until the following mid-January. So committees’ contributions and spending during the height of the election season, starting about Oct. 1, aren’t available to the public until the new year, long after the campaigns are forgotten.

An example of the information gap is provided by an independent committee named the Douglas County Education Alliance, which has produced materials supporting school board incumbents. The committee registered with the secretary of state on Sept. 29, one day before the end of the July 1-Sept. 30 reporting period. So when the committee filed its report on Oct. 15 it listed no contribution and no spending. It now doesn’t have to file a report until Jan. 15, 2016.

The group’s registered agent, Randy Reed, didn’t respond to questions asked by Chalkbeat Colorado.

Why are there different reporting requirements by year?

Observers say it’s largely because campaign finance laws were written before odd-year elections become contentious. A constitutional amendment governing campaign finance was passed by voters 13 years ago, and the most recent legislative tweak in finance laws was passed in 2010.

“Our fundamental campaign finance law in the Colorado constitution was enacted in 2002 when school board elections weren’t so major,” said Toro of Ethics Watch. “They kind of fell between the cracks.”

Both Toro and Fish think the legislature should perhaps rethink the reporting deadlines.

“Maybe it’s time for the state to take a look at requiring more frequent reporting, especially since the money appears to be growing in these [board] elections,” said Fish, an independent journalist who has written extensively on campaign finance.

Yet another reporting gap

Independent expenditure committees are a unique animal. They have to report their contributors, and they have to report what they spend. But they are barred from coordinating their efforts with candidates and their personal committees.

If you find a glossy brochure in your mailbox that reads “Vote for John Doe,” or “Don’t vote for Mary Smith,” with a disclaimer like “Paid for by the Committee for a Better City,” chances are it was paid for by an independent committee.

During regular elections in even-numbered years, such committees must make separate reports within 48 hours of making “electioneering communications,” expenditures for or against specific candidates. But that requirement doesn’t apply in odd-numbered years, leaving the public and political operatives without real-time information about what such committees are doing.

“Dark money” playing a bigger role

There’s yet another group of committees that doesn’t have to report contributions or spending reports – as long as they follow certain rules.

Known in the political world as C4s (after a section of the Internal Revenue Service code), such committees are nonprofits that are allowed to distribute political ads and materials – as long as they don’t cross a certain line.

That line is this: The committees aren’t allowed to use what political operatives call “the magic words” – like “vote for Smith” or “vote against Doe.”

A video ad produced by Americans for Prosperity in Douglas County is a classic of the genre.

The ad features a retired teacher named Denise Denny, who says, “Some of the best schools in the country are right here in Douglas County.”

As a phone number appears in the video, Denny says, “Call the Douglas County school board and thank them for supporting school choice, because more choices mean more opportunity, and that makes all the difference.”

Americans for Prosperity has posted similar videos in Jeffco during this fall’s campaign.

Sometimes C4 committees work in tandem with independent groups.

Raising Colorado’s sole source of funding this year is Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based C4. Both are arms of Democrats for Education Reform. Raising Colorado has to report who gave it money and how that cash was spent. But Education Reform Now Advocacy doesn’t have to report contributors, so the ultimate source of Raising Colorado’s funding isn’t public.

In 2014, Education Reform Now Advocacy gave $465,000 to Raising Colorado, according to reports on file with the secretary of state. Between January and September of this year, the group gave $250,000 to Raising Colorado, according to the latest filing, which was submitted on October 15. Raising Colorado doesn’t have to file again until January, which means it will be months before the public will know how much money the New York-based group gave to the Colorado committee in the last few weeks before the election.

Jen Walmer, Raising Colorado’s registered agent and head of DFER in Colorado, did not respond to requests for comment this week.

Nonprofit groups that participate in elections do have to detail some of their finances in reports to the Internal Revenue Service, through Form 990s. Those reports provide information about how much a nonprofit has raised and spent but not about the specific sources of its income. But those reports only are filed once a year, long after elections are over. (For an example, see this 2014 990 filing by Citizens for Sound Government, a Lakewood-based conservative group that has sponsored literature in this year’s Dougco races.)

And then there are the candidates

The campaign committees set up by candidates do have to report their financial activities more frequently in odd-year elections. Filings are required in mid-October and then at the end of the month, providing an up-to-date look at contributions and spending right up to the election. Final reports are due in early December.

But unlike many other office seekers, like legislative candidates, there is no limit on the amount of individual contributions to school board candidates. Issue committees, which are part of the Jeffco recall, also don’t have contribution limits.

“Theoretically you could give a million dollars to one of these candidates,” jokes Fish.

That hasn’t happened, but there were five-figure individual donations to DPS and Dougco candidates in past elections.

That bothered Denver Democratic state Rep. Beth McCann, who’s now running for district attorney.

“The current lack of limits makes it extremely difficult for a parent to run to be a school board member unless he or she has contacts with a lot of wealthy individuals or those with certain agendas,” McCann.

She sponsored bills in 2011 and 2012 to cap board campaign contributions, but both measures died.

“It was very hard to get support from the unions or the outside interests as they do not necessarily want to limit their ability to make and collect contributions,” McCann said.

She said she expects future efforts to limit contributions, but not during the upcoming legislative session.

Toro of Ethics Watch is somewhat less worried about contribution limits, noting that much of the spending in school board races seems to have shifted to outside groups.

And Fish notes that because of the reporting requirements imposed on candidate, “It may not be to your advantage to take large contributions.”

Jan Tanner, an outgoing board member in Colorado Springs District 11, feels candidates are at a disadvantage because they have a reporting burden not shared by independent committees.

“There’s so much soft money [and] there’s no teeth in the law to make sure it’s reported,” in contrast to the detailed filings required of candidate committees, she said.

“If you’re trying to hide money there are lots of ways to do it.”

Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report.

EthicsWatch2013Chart

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.