More money pumped into Michigan school board races

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By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan saw a dramatic increase in funding for school board races for the Nov. 8 elections, election watchers say.

“Normally school board races fly under the radar,” said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards. “This amount of attention is unheard of.” 

One reason: Nationwide, conservative groups have called for more “parental rights” over what schools are teaching their children, Smith said. These same groups donated thousands of dollars to Michigan school board races. These groups, or political action committees, do not normally pay that much attention to school board races.

For example, this is the first year that the Great Lakes Education Project has spent money on school board races, Beth DeShone, executive director of GLEP, told  the Detroit News. The group spent about $100,000 this year across 20 races. 

The group, formed by Betsy DeVos, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and prominent Republican donor, usually donates to statewide races, but is now involved in local races to “‘empower these citizens’ voices and take a chance to engage on these races to create a more transparent system,” according to DeShone. 

GLEP could not be reached for additional comment.

“Previously, these races were community funded,” Smith said. “A candidate would fund themselves, or fundraise with other community members.”

More attention to school board races can be a good thing, said Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association. 

“But this election, the attention we saw was largely spreading conspiracies and misinformation,” Morgan said. “Luckily, these candidates largely were not successful, and voters chose candidates who would be best for improving children’s education and collaborating with teachers.”

One of the biggest polarizing issues was the belief that schools indoctrinate children by teaching critical race theory and gender theory, he said.

Such beliefs can drive attention in local campaigns.

“Some parents are scared that schools are teaching their children things that they themselves do not believe in,” said John Lindstrom, a former publisher at Gongwer News Service Michigan, a news organization focusing on state politics.

“More money than ever before is going towards supporting these candidates,” said Lindstrom, a board member of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Now that people know these races matter, I don’t see an end to the increase in money.”

Although school board candidates are nonpartisan, the causes they may champion are not. 

But school board members lack the power to do a lot of things candidates ran on, Smith and Morgan both said. Their main duty is to select a superintendent.

Curriculum standards are set at the state level, and enforced by curriculum directors at schools.

It’s unclear if political action committees funding school board candidates were aware that school board members have little authority over what schools teach children, Morgan said.

“These groups may have just been trying to get attention on fake issues in order to distract from real ones,” Morgan said. “However, the large majority of voters are focused on the truth and what’s best for their children, and that’s what we saw in this election.”

Tracking who finances a school board candidate can be difficult, according to Morgan.

While some county clerks post the information on their websites, that is less common in areas with fewer resources to do so.

“It comes down to how well-staffed a county clerk’s office is and what their IT department can do if these records can be searchable online,” Morgan said.

Improvements in finance tracking might be necessary if the trend of spending a lot of money on school board races continues, Morgan said. 

But Smith says that this attention might not continue into the future, especially after how so few candidates funded by political action committees won. She argues that since these races are so local, local community members should be the ones financing them.

“I hope the attention goes away soon,” Smith said. “It’s a distraction and the hyper-politicization of schools is not what we need.”