By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan has seen a dramatic increase in school board race funding for the Nov. 8 election, according to election observers.
“Normally school board races go unnoticed,” said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards. “This amount of attention is unprecedented.”
One reason: Nationwide, conservative groups have called for more “parental rights” over what schools teach their children, Smith said. These same groups have donated thousands of dollars to school board races in Michigan. These groups, or political action committees, don’t normally pay 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 runs, Beth DeShone, executive director of GLEP, told the Detroit News. The group spent around $100,000 this year on 20 races.
The group, formed by Betsy DeVos, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and prominent Republican donor, typically donates to statewide races but is now involved in local races to ”strengthen the voice of these citizens and seize the opportunity to engage in 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 members of the community.”
More attention to school board races can be a good thing, said Michigan Education Association spokesman Thomas Morgan.
“But this election, the attention we saw was largely spreading conspiracy and misinformation,” Morgan said. “Fortunately, these candidates were largely unsuccessful, and voters chose the candidates who would be best at improving children’s education and collaborating with teachers.”
One of the biggest polarizing issues was the belief that schools are indoctrinating children by teaching critical race theory and gender theory, he said.
Such beliefs can attract attention in local campaigns.
“Some parents are afraid that schools are teaching their kids things they don’t believe in themselves,” said John Lindstrom, former editor of Gongwer News Service Michigan, a news agency specializing in state politics.
“More money than ever is being spent supporting these candidates,” said Lindstrom, board member of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Now that people know these races matter, I don’t see the end of the money going up.”
While school board candidates are non-partisan, the causes they can champion are not.
But school board members don’t have the power to do a lot of the things candidates ran on, both Smith and Morgan said. Their main task is to choose a superintendent.
Curriculum standards are set at the state level and enforced by curriculum directors in schools.
It’s unclear whether the political action committees funding school board nominees knew that school board members had little authority over what schools teach children, Morgan said.
“These groups may have just been trying to draw attention to fake issues in order to distract from the real ones,” Morgan said. “However, the vast majority of voters are focused on the truth and what’s best for their children, and that’s what we’ve seen in this election.”
According to Morgan, it can be difficult to know who is funding a candidate for a school board.
Although some county clerks post the information on their websites, this is less common in areas with fewer resources to do so.
“It depends on the quality of the county clerk’s office staff and what their IT department can do if those records can be viewed online,” Morgan said.
Improvements in tracking finances may be needed if the trend of spending big on school board errands continues, Morgan said.
But Smith says that focus may not continue in the future, especially after the victory of so few political action committee-funded candidates. She argues that since these races are so local, members of the local community should be the ones funding them.
“I hope the attention fades away soon,” Smith said. “It’s a distraction and the hyper-politicization of schools is not what we need.”